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  • Five Minutes of Political Theater: An Interview with Spoken Word Poet Regie Cabico

    Production: Emma Cregan, Laura Zhang

    Filipino and queer, Regie Cabico threw aside the Asian stereotype of the “model minority” in fifth grade and began uncovering identity, social issues, and love through his most “naked” form of truth: spoken word poetry. 

    Within the first five minutes of meeting Regie, I immediately wanted to be his best friend. Sitting in a comfortable booth in the performance room of Busboys and Poets, a popular local coffee shop where he hosts many of his poetry summits, he embraced every aspect of himself in our conversation. Unorthodox and poignantly honest, he emitted a palpable spirit that raised the energy in the room simply because he was in it.

    As a world-renowned spoken word poet and child of immigrants, Regie grew up in a conservative family in the suburbs of Maryland. In his neighborhood, which consisted of “50 percent rednecks and 50 percent African Americans,” Filipinos were scarce to find, fueling a sentiment of alienation that has served as inspiration for many of his poems. 

    “I wanted that Brady Bunch life,” he says. “I wanted my mom to bake cupcakes and not that other s**t. I wanted to have a birthday party. I wanted to have access to what American life looked like. There was no fear in the Brady Bunch. And I never had that.”

    In fifth grade, Regie decided he would become vocal about his identity, making a purposeful decision to be more dramatic and read aloud in class. Subsequently, he discovered theater, which propelled him into Washington, D.C.’s art scene.

    Though acting allowed him to embrace his identity, American theater in the 1990s was still exclusionary. The theater had begun adopting more nontraditional casting, but Regie only took on secondary and tertiary roles. Discouraged, he turned to poetry, discovering a significant amount of acceptance he had not expected.  

    “Check One” by Regie Cabico
    Production: Emma Cregan, Laura Zhang

    Many of Regie’s poems begin with discussions of race or subtle forms of discrimination. As a queer Filipino, he has endured various forms of discrimination—his favorite is being asked if he’s Hawaiian—and the homophobia that remained pervasive in open mics.

    “When I started performing in homophobic spaces, it was so awkward because you could literally just feel the temperature drop,” Regie says. “But I just had to power through it.” 

    As a result, he created various safe spaces in D.C., not only to transform it into a spoken word capital, but also to establish an intergenerational lineage.

    “When I started the slam, many of my mentors died of AIDS, and now we need to move on an intergenerational level and disrupt the disconnect,” Regie explains. “People are so laser-eyed and furious because some younger poets misconstrue some of our older poets. While they may have a point, there needs to be dialogue.”

    One of the summits, called Capturing Fire, has grown into an international spoken word and poetry festival where queer-identified writers gather for a poetry slam after three days of panels, workshops, and performances. By bridging the gap between the young and the old through events like the Capturing Fire, Regie hopes for greater dialogue and discourse despite all the division between and within communities.

    “We’re still trying to calibrate ourselves as a country and as poets,” he says. “This current political administration is challenging our own nationality and what that means, so I’m hoping we can use poetry as a way to connect and understand each other, even amongst our own.”

    Regie explains that he manages programs in order to increase inclusivity of all intersectional identities, since many queer people of color still feel a disconnect and power struggle with the white queer community.

    Regie Cabico (left) with other Capturing Fire poets Gowri K. Día Bùi, and Jerrica Escoto at the Folklife Festival’ Story Circle.
    Photo by Daniel Martinez, Ralph Rinzler Folklife Archives

    As a form of political theater, spoken word poetry allows the performer to share their own truths with the audience. Regie, like many of those who embrace a myriad of marginalized identities, grew up immersed in a cloud of self-hate, but the “naked truth” of spoken word poetry has allowed him to not only touch his audience, but also to connect with himself.

    “Growing up, it was hard to know what I actually looked like...and that I have my own beauty,” he says. “Up on stage, you have to be this superhero and channel all of this. When you’re on stage, you have to be your strongest, most defiant, fiercest kickass self.”

    Regie participated in a workshop at the Folklife Festival on July 6. He explained that the Festival’s theme of On the Move responds to the current political climate by enriching the conversation in an atmosphere for the queer community, people of color, and immigrants.

    “The Mall, with the heart of the city, and being part of the local community—being involved gives it a rich texture,” Regie adds. “At the Festival, people have been illuminated by the displays, dialogue, the interviews.”

    Unapologetically himself, Regie explains that his poems are, at their core, “all about love, ultimately. And we need poems like we need as much love as possible.”

    Laura Zhang is a student at the University of Texas at Austin studying neuroscience. She is an intern at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and exudes a passion for social justice, stories, and dogs of all kinds.

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