Profile of the artist: He’s not posing for his face on a silver dollar just yet, but when Rock Wilk returns to The Showroom this Friday night, he’ll be commemorating the end of one chapter — and the beginning of an exciting new phase — in the evolution of his performance piece BROKE WIDE OPEN.
By TOM CHESEK (First published on Red Bank oRBit February 2, 2010)
Maybe you caught a glimpse of a GOT WILK? sticker on a street sign and wondered vaguely what that was all about. Maybe you found yourself riding the G line of the NYC subway one night and didn’t know what to make of that intense character sitting across from you; taking down notes and talk-singing to himself not from insanity but inspiration. Or maybe you were just put in position to encounter him in guerrilla performance mode — be it on the streets of Asbury Park, at a coffeehouse in Long Branch, even the Borders bookstore in Eatontown.
If you’ve ever so much as dipped occasionally into our oRBit, you’ve probably encountered some mention of Rock Wilk, the Brooklyn-based “singer, scribe and spoken-word sensei” who’s likely racking up some new categories even as we write this. For the past couple of years, this seriously driven artist has staked out a second base of operations “down the Shore” in and around Asbury town, where the veteran studio musician — credits include recordings by such pop eminences as Nile Rodgers and Patti Labelle — went to hone and define the live performance piece that came to be known as Broke Wide Open. Taking its name from Wilk’s self-released 2008 CD — a sober set of songs rooted in anger, personal pain and a broader social anguish — the work has transcended its source material; morphing into a fully fleshed theatrical presentation that centers around its creator’s real-life search for his biological parents, and his consequent struggle with his own sense of self.
We first caught a very early version of this work in the historic parlor of the Crane House in Asbury, under the name Ma’Plej’ (the odd name roughly translates as “my pledge” and is composed of letters corresponding to the names of Wilk’s extended family members). The artist subsequently would show up at venues ranging from Asbury Park High School to SICA in Long Branch, to that aforementioned suburban bookstore — and along the line, the melodic vocals of the original album gave way to a new, more raw (but no less rhythmic) spoken-word-with-music attack that Wilk would mark with a second word-based CD (Valentine’s Day) and a second MySpace page dedicated to this developing aspect of his art and craft.
Wilk would continue to workshop his ever-evolving work at performance venues in NYC — but it was at The Showroom, that savvy storefront screening space in downtown Asbury Park, where Broke Wide Open took a quantum leap forward toward a new life as a real-deal stage play last year. This Friday night, the Wilkman returneth to Mike and Nancy’s place on Cookman Avenue for an occasion that marks the end of one chapter — it will be the last time he’ll be performing the one-man “staged reading” version of BWO — and the first step toward the project’s next logical phase; that being a fully staged New York production.
Red Bank oRBit rang up the Rock at this exciting career crossroads — Continue Reading for best results.
RED BANK oRBit: So, I’m understanding that this weekend’s performance at The Showroom represents a kind of closing one chapter in your project called BROKE WIDE OPEN. Is it more of a beginning or an end? Would it be the last time we get to see you perform down here for the time being?
ROCK WILK: This is the last staged reading of Broke Wide Open that I’ll be doing in this form. I’ve been workshopping it now with various directors; working with people who can confirm that I’ve been going in the right direction. I’ve been working on the script for about a year now — I feel like I’ve been in school for the past year or so.
I’ve also been performing it as much as five times a week in places like the Theater Lab in Manhattan,which is just an amazing place, and the Nuyorican Poets Cafe. But down here is where I first performed it as Broke Wide Open, and when I first did it at The Showroom, I had an intermission for the first time; I did a Q&A with the audience for the first time, which was just ridiculously amazing.
Having seen what you’ve been doing as sort of a multimedia slide show; as a scaled-down reading for bookstores and coffeehouses, and as a more polished piece — how far has this thing evolved from what you first did at the Crane House in 2008?
Oh, it’s radically different from how it started out. Ma’Plej’ was more of a presentation piece, based on my album, with some other spoken material that explained the songs. It’s evolved into a two-hour play with intermission.
Basically, it’s about the search for my biological mother — I think of it as sort of an urban Wizard of Oz; you meet all sorts of characters along the way. I’ve taken actual things that have happened over the years; included people that I’ve known in my life.
When you first saw it in its original form, it was kind of an angry piece — there was personal anger in there, but also anger directed at broad themes like racism, prejudice. Now I look at it as a celebration of every experience I’ve had in my life
Anger sometimes comes off as honesty — you know, it’s easy to be angry, and harder to deal with truth and be balanced about it. So as far as being angry — I’ve evolved, definitely. I feel that I convey the same intensity, but at the same time I feel more secure in myself.
I’m aware of your famous method of writing on the subway, but would you say that the time you’ve spent down in our neck of the weeds has really had a big impact on shaping your work?
Going down to Asbury Park, which I did a while back for personal reasons and just to get away, was crucial to the development of this play. To me it was like exploring Roman ruins. I couldn’t have done what I’ve done if I didn’t leave the city — I’m a self-professed New York City snob, but it’s important to get out and see different places.
When I got to Asbury Park I didn’t know anybody; I had to learn about the city and the people who lived there. Like, I got interested in what the Arts Coalition of Asbury Park was doing, although to me there was a real disconnect between one side of the town and the west side; my intention was to kind of work with people to get things happening all over town, to kind of bridge the gap a little bit.
But I wanted to finish this stage of the project down here — partly as a way to thank the people who’ve had a lot to do with this project evolving the way it has.
Who are some of the people down here that have really taken an active interest in your project?
The people from The Showroom — I love those guys! I kept going over there before they opened; as soon as I saw the place I knew it would be perfect for what I was doing. And Stephen Bishop Seely, who you probably remember from ReVision Theatre Company, was the person who more than anyone else helped me to turn it into a real play. He’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever met — he got me to go deeper and deeper with this work; prompted me to make the choices I had to make. I’d be thinking I was being brutally honest and he’d be telling me, ‘I think you’re hiding.’
Stephen’s left ReVision to concentrate on his acting career again, but he put me in touch with some important people at Disney and at the Public Theater. And I’ve done a lot of community outreach with ReVision; I’d like to continue my association with them.
During the time that you spent around Asbury Park and the surrounding area, you got yourself involved in a few other events — for instance, you had something to do with a performance at The Showroom by the spoken word artist Tylik “TIGGA” Railey, which got cancelled a month or two back.
Yeah, Tigga’s show had to be postponed when he got sick, but they’re looking to get it together again, possibly later in February. As soon as I saw Tigga perform I knew that he was just the sort of artist who could help make the kind of connections I was talking about; he comes from Asbury Park, from a family of social activists, and I hope that ArtsCAP can work together with him.
Another local endeavor that you took an active role in was the Long Branch Poetry Festival, specifically the Young Poets portion of the event…
It was really great to host that program, and to work with those kids from the local schools — a great experience, and anytime the Arts Council people want to to do something together, I’d be into it. I was impressed that they had a political panel discussion on poetry, right there in the council chambers at the municipal building.
Well, thanks to Brian Unger, Long Branch is one of the few towns that can boast a published poet on the City Council.
Yeah, Brian’s a good guy, and so are Gabe Barabas and Robyn Ellenbogen from the Arts Council. And I got to know Long Branch a little better; I think the downtown, around where SICA is, is a nice area — the architecture’s really cool, which is something I’m always interested in. But there’s a definite sense of isolation from the beach, from all the new things that have opened up on that side of the city.
Yeah, downtown Long Branch is very much a work in progress, and if we all ever get out from under the economic nasties it’ll definitely be a place to watch in years to come. Evolving, just like you — it wasn’t so very long ago that I knew you as a singer, an arranger and a musician.
I come from the music business; it was my frame of reference for a long time, and I still have stuff going on musically with MTV and other things. But in order to make this project happen I had to abandon a lot of what I did in the past. I had to commit 100 percent to developing this work — and it was like public humiliation for the first six months! But now, when I’m introduced to people, I’m introduced as an actor and a playwright. I’m completely immersed in that world, when just a couple of years ago I would never have imagined such a thing.
Well, here’s a question to take this thing out — having put so much of yourself out there, when you meet someone for the first time, do you get the sense that they kind of feel they’ve got the drop on you; like they think they know all about you and you don’t know jackshit about them?
A lot of people think they know me, but I’m changing every day. I’m actually very shy, very private — at a party I’m the one who’s standing there not talking to anybody. So while there’s a lot of me in this work, I’ve made sure that it’s not just all about me.
You know, I never did get to meet my biological mother, so after all the searching I still don’t have the answers necessarily. But through that exploration, I feel like I have closure. For me, this whole thing has been a cathartic experience — although I want people to know they won’t be attending someone’s therapy session. It’s still entertainment!