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A Look Inside the World of Spoken-Word Karaoke

Nixon, Churchill, and Gandhi walk into a bar. . .

Illustration: Chris Gash

The burly fellow in the gray T-shirt and red-and-white-striped suspenders is absolutely killing Patton’s speech to the Third Army.

“We’re not going to just shoot the sons of bitches,” he yells, waving his arms like a maniac as beads of sweat form on his forehead. “We’re going to rip out their living goddamned guts and use them to grease the treads of our tanks. We’re going to murder those lousy Hun cocksuckers by the bushel-fucking-basket!”

The general’s hilariously profane badass rhetoric—brought to life here in the backroom of the Haymarket Pub & Brewery with “America, fuck yeah!” theatrical gusto—elicits cheers and machine-gun rounds of applause from the crowd of a hundred. Yes, the spirited performance reminds us that war is a bloody business, but it also demonstrates the undeniable potency of language. By the time the guy is finished, I’m ready to ditch my craft beer and storm the beaches of Normandy.

Anyone who’s ever belted out “Don’t Stop Believin’ ” for a roomful of total strangers would recognize the scene in this West Loop bar. The tiny stage. The teleprompter. The screens featuring cartoony clip art and colorful scrolling text. But pop and classic-rock hits have been replaced with about a hundred famous speeches in this oration version of karaoke, dubbed Spokaoke by its creator, New York theater director and writer Annie Dorsen. Some of the discourses, such as Martin Luther King Jr.’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech, are iconic. Others, such as Alicia Silverstone’s Valley girl monologue about “Haiti-an” refugees from Clueless, are silly. All are meant to spark a reaction.

“There’s something about the embodiment of performing [these speeches] for a group,” says Dorsen as she sips white wine at a table next to the stage. “It has a certain kind of immediacy. You get a kind of feeling of what it would be like to actually be the intended audience. That becomes really powerful.”

Tonight’s Chicago Humanities Festival event marks just the ninth happening of Spokaoke (and the second in Chicago, after the previous night’s debut) since Dorsen, who cocreated the 2008 hit Broadway musical Passing Strange, started the performance art project in 2012. It gives regular folks an opportunity to dive headfirst into Dorsen’s meticulously assembled list of historical texts. “Every time, the evening takes on a life of its own,” she says. “I did it once in a karaoke bar in New York and it was chaos. And I’ve done it where it was very quiet and people really listened.”

This evening starts slow. A monotone reading of Winston Churchill’s “We Shall Fight on the Beaches” speech by a 20-something in a flannel shirt neuters the British firebrand’s classic wartime morale booster. It’s the equivalent of kicking off a barroom karaoke session with a 12-minute butchering of “American Pie.”

Then a hipsterish dude in a knit cap gives his take on César Chávez’s address about ending his hunger strike. His delivery is solid, but it’s hard to get too wrapped up when two women are devouring a massive plate of mac and cheese a few feet from the stage.

If you think there’s pressure to do justice to Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ on a Prayer,” try walking in Mahatma Gandhi’s sandals. But 60-something Brett Hoffman, a retired speech professor, isn’t fazed. He revives the energy in the room with his interpretation of the leader’s “Quit India” speech, an elegant call for nonviolent protest (and certainly his greatest hit). Hoffman even incorporates a serviceable, if slightly leprechaunish, Indian accent. His three gray-haired companions high-five him as he returns to his seat. “This feels sort of like karaoke for adults,” he later tells me.

But that doesn’t mean Spokaoke isn’t fun. A young guy in a rumpled suit works the room into a tizzy as he repeats over and over again, “I’m as mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore!” from the movie Network. And then there’s Bill Clinton’s 1998 “I Have Sinned” speech, his shameless post-Lewinsky apology at the National Prayer Breakfast, which drips with delicious irony when delivered in a breathy Southern accent by an attractive redhead named Brittany.

“I think a lot of people get up there and are surprised that the speech works them as opposed to them working the speech,” Dorsen tells me. “One guy in New York, he got physically ill after reciting Joseph Goebbels’s ‘Total War’ speech. It’s an uncomfortable thing to speak words you don’t believe.”

But it can be just the opposite when someone recites words written to galvanize us. Like when Luke Wittig, a 29-year-old waiter from Edgewater who looks like your average bro, surprises the crowd of culture vultures by crushing Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address without the aid of the teleprompter. (“I had a middle school history teacher that made us memorize it,” he tells me later.)

Toward the end of the night, I muster the courage to get up onstage myself. Scanning the list, I use the same criteria I would if I were picking the perfect karaoke song: It should be short and sweet. Familiar to me, as well as to the audience. Something where I can incorporate some panache. Hoffman suggests I go with Shakespeare. No way. I don’t want that kind of pressure. I want something a little more contemporary, words that might still spark debate. I settle on Nixon’s “I’m Not a Crook” speech.

I take the stage and grab the mike: “I have never profited from public service. I’ve earned every cent. In all my years in public life, I have never obstructed justice.” It’s a weird feeling, telling another man’s lies. A slight Nixon accent begins to creep in. I mimic his famously monotone cadences. But I also start to admire his ballsiness. I want the audience to believe me.

It becomes almost an out-of-body experience as I plow ahead, stopping just short of flashing his double peace sign salute. Finally, I arrive at Tricky Dick’s money line: “Well, I’m not a crook—I’ve earned everything I’ve got.” I drop the mike. Boom. There’s a smattering of applause, but it feels polite. Maybe his lies still burn after all these years. Either way, it seems that the most famous speech from our most unpopular president is no way to bring down the house.

If I get another chance, I’m totally rocking JFK’s “Ask Not” speech. Or maybe I’ll go with Jesus’s Sermon on the Mount. That one killed back in Galilee.


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