One-man show explores racial complexities at Detroit Public Theatre

Michael H. Hodges
The Detroit News

Kane Smego’s parents split up when he was just 2. And while he always had a relationship with his dad, his real father figure growing up in North Carolina was his mother’s new partner – a black professor.

It’s that dichotomy – a white kid nuts about hip-hop who adored his African-American stepdad – that forms the nucleus of Smego’s “Temples of Lung and Air,” his speculation on race, America and layered identities.

The complexities of race in America form the heart of Kane Smego's one-man show at the Detroit Public Theatre, "Temples of Lung and Air."

“Temples,” directed by Joseph Megel, will be at the Detroit Public Theatre through Dec. 8.

Smego, 33, said he hopes the show gets audience members, particularly guys like himself, thinking about the tangled nature of this country's racial divide -- complexities that often reside in the unconscious, and require some digging to unearth. 

“I grew up with these opposing narratives of race,” the artist said over coffee in Midtown earlier this week. “From the time I was four, my mother’s partner was a black professor, and my grandparents,” steeped in old-fashioned racial attitudes, “were white folks in Joliet, Illinois.”

His birth father, who died in 2012, was an infectious-disease doctor who worked for years in some of the poorest places on earth. But for all that idealism, he was also a man who’d crack to his young son, in a nod to Smego’s stepfather, “Your mother sure does love chocolate.”

Kane Smego explores the complexities of race in America in "Temples of Lung and Air," his one-man show at the Detroit Public Theatre.

The artist described his father as an example of “the white guy who says he’s liberal, but still feels it’s OK to make jokes. I don’t think there was hatred in my dad,” Smego added, “but there was at least a sense of racial hierarchy.”

For his part, Smego grew up in an apartment complex in Durham, North Carolina, that was largely Asian-American, in a town he said was “about 40% African-American and 42% white. So I grew up with black folks, white folks, Latin folks, Asian folks.”

Getting into hip-hop just deepened the racial mix. “I’ve been writing rhymes and hip-hop since elementary school,” he said, “ever since I found out poems could be rapped." 

And in recent years, once Smego got into spoken word, a form of performance poetry, his mentors and poetry-slam teammates were often African-American or Asian. "I’ve always had," he said, "a super-diverse family around me."

Boiled down to its essentials, “Temples” is a collection of memories strung together through short character sketches, rap and spoken word.

It was a professor from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill who first introduced Smego to spoken-word competitions, which he took to with gusto. At the National Poetry Slam in 2010, his team came in third place.

"That opened a lot of doors to travel and tour," Smego said.  "I went on tour with my best friend, G. Yamazawa -- who was on the team and also a hip hop artist from Durham -- for three months. We just flew. Fifty shows and 25 workshops in 17 states over 101 days. It was packed."

But the tour led to a career epiphany: "It made us realize we could do this." 

Then the State Department came calling, and for the past several years, Smego's been a traveling cultural ambassador for the United States in the Next Level arts program, performing and leading spoken-word workshops in places as diverse as Zimbabwe, Thailand, Cambodia, Brazil, Morocco and Guatemala.

This spring, he heads to Peru. Small wonder Smego said that while he loves his new home in Los Angeles, he's hardly ever there. 

"In last three months," he said, "I've probably been home six or seven days. That's pretty normal for me."

Happily, he'll be in Detroit for the next couple weeks, and has discovered a real affection for the Motor City. 

"I love it so far," Smego said. "You can feel the soul of the place. Detroit's got its own kind of energy."

(313) 222-6021

Twitter: @mhodgesartguy 

'Temples of Lung and Air'

Through Dec. 8

Detroit Public Theatre, Max M. & Marjorie S. Fisher Music Center, 3711 Woodward, Detroit

$40 - adults, $30 - seniors, $25 juniors (under 30) Wed.-Fri. & Sun

$47.50 - adults, $37.50 - seniors, $32.50 - juniors

(313) 576-5111