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Debris Stevenson’s grime poetry is bringing new audiences to the theatre

Dizzee spell: Debris, far right, on stage with castmates MC Jammz and Cassie Clare

DEBRIS STEVENSON was a 13-year-old misfit growing up in a Mormon family on an estate on the edges of east London, when she discovered fellow teenager Dizzee Rascal’s breathtaking debut album, Boy In Da Corner, in 2003. It had a transformative effect, helping dyslexic Debris find her voice and a place in the world.

Fast forward to 2020 and its impact on Debris continues to reverberate as the poet, dancer and writer’s ‘grime play’, Poet In Da Corner, tours Leicester, Birmingham, Nottingham, Manchester and London this month.

It debuted at the Royal Court back in autumn 2018, starring Debris and grime MC Jammz and directed by Ola Ince, and its blend of poetry, dance and thundering grime music was received with rapturous acclaim.

The semi-autobiographical show was variously described by critics as ‘thrilling’, ‘inspiring’ and ‘boldly different’. So, how has it developed since its first incarnation?

‘It’s evolved incredibly,’ says Debris. ‘Structurally, it’s the same, but from my perspective as a writer and Ola’s perspective, it’s much tighter. The text of the play is actually longer but timewise the show itself is shorter. I spent two weeks alone going through every single verb, asking if each verb is working as hard as possible — that’s your bread and butter as a poet.

‘Now the play has poems in the form and structure of Shakespearean sonnets. That wasn’t the case before. Being able to bang a Shakespeare sonnet in the middle of a grime play and bring together that juxtaposition is really exciting,’ she continues. ‘It’s important to bring the two worlds together, as quite a few people have said watching the show is like watching a Shakespeare play. Because if you’re not from the background I’m from and you don’t speak the slang or know grime references, it can be like reading Shakespeare.’

It’s clear from talking to Debris that she is hugely passionate about enabling grime to be appreciated as a literary form and placing its metres and rhythms, wordplay, dexterity and imagery centre stage. ‘It’s super-geeky. So much of grime is geeky but cultural gatekeepers never talk about grime with any level of respect,’ she says.

For example, the play’s text highlights the field of ‘grime poetics’ — a movement within the effervescent spoken-word and poetry scene, celebrating the poetry of the genre, and takes on the task of committing it to the page.

‘What do grime bars look like when they’re published?’ she asks. ‘I worked with Kayo Chingonyi, who coined the term “grime poetics” and MC Jammz, who plays SS Vyper in the show, on this and how you use line breaks, capital letters and semicolons. Grime is a distinct poetry form.’

Poet In Da Corner has also drawn plaudits for bringing new audiences — both younger and working class — into the often staid world of theatre.

For Debris, getting a foot in the door means holding it open so that others can follow, and this feels particularly important against the bigger picture of austerity, youth club closures, and arts and cultural hubs needing to do much more to engage the communities they are supposed to serve.

‘Some of the touring theatres are developing new work as a result of Poet In Da Corner and, for me, that’s a prerequisite because the show is also about developing audiences, theatres changing the way they think about work and changing who feels like they have permission to be in the building,’ explains Debris, who pays tribute to the Roundhouse, Southbank Centre, poetry night Apples And Snakes, the Royal Court, Nottingham Playhouse and Leicester’s Curve Theatre for ‘investing in me’.

‘For example,’ she continues, ‘Nottingham Playhouse has programmed a beatbox and loop show by Bridie Squires about working in a casino before our show, and we’re tailoring part of Poet In Da Corner to incorporate a female dance crew from Nottingham. We’re trying to think of ways to help theatres change the way they work and planting seeds for the future.’

Poet In Da Corner is at the Curve, Leicester tonight and tomorrow, then on national tour until April 4,