I was eager Thursday night to meet Reginald Dwayne Betts, a felon, a poet and a Yale Law School graduate. His bio did more than suggest Betts had a fascinating story to tell about prison to prosperity.
I don’t hear such tales often enough.
Unlike some of those I’ve heard, Betts wasn’t a victim of wrongful conviction. When he was 16, he carjacked a motorist at gunpoint and spent a long stretch in an adult prison.
How did a teenager as bright as Betts do something so dastardly?
I thought for certain he’d walk his audience of roughly 75 at the Cleveland Public Library Main Branch from high school to prison to freedom and to his wonderful work educating other inmates through his reading program “Freedom Reads,” a nonprofit.
I thought wrong.
If his exchange with an ill-prepared interviewer told me anything, it was this: Betts rode into town on an ego trip.
His was no lecture, and it wasn’t much of a Q&A. He threw enough tidbits to the crowd to hold some interest, but even the best of those were turned topsy-turvy because of his profanity.
Perhaps his aim was to mimic Richard Pryor; it failed. For Betts, a MacArthur Fellow and an award-winning essayist, was no more a comic than he was a storyteller. Not this night, anyway.
He might have hinted early that this wasn’t going to be his best performance. Asked how much joy he had in his life — it was the interviewer’s first question — he rambled toward an answer.
“I’m not finding joy at this particular moment,” he eventually said.
Neither was I.
As Betts spoke, I sensed a restlessness in those in front of him. They searched for what I searched for: a reason to stick around.
One or two trickled out, but most stayed the distance. They left no better informed about his prison project than I was before I came to hear him.
Now, I take no solace in critiquing another’s work harshly. I try hard to find the good in it. But some performances have no good to find, such as the comedian (Jeff Garcia) I watched a week ago in Las Vegas.
Betts didn’t take on crime. Betts didn’t take on punishment. Betts didn’t take on reading or censorship, which were likely topics library officials brought him to our town to discuss.
I have no idea how much the library paid the man for his night’s work. Whatever it was, he ought to give most of the money back.
Yet the problem with Betts might have been the lousy interviewer. She was out of her depth, ill-equipped to prod her interviewee about the ramifications of a felony record, about how he navigated the academic rigors of an Ivy League college or what led him to call providing books to inmates a fundamental purpose in his life.
I didn’t expect Betts to be Wall Street slick. Nor did I expect to hear the coarseness he put on display throughout the evening. I’m hardly prudish about language, but, oh my God, the man had better choices to lean on if he hoped to make his points clear.
If I’d wanted Rick Ross, I’d have paid to see the real thing in concert. A poet, which Betts was labeled, should use language with a bit more precision and elegance. He wasn’t on the hip-hop circuit.
Or was he?
But maybe Betts was too cerebral — his message beyond me. I doubt it. He can’t wrap it in profanity and get a standing ovation for showing a literate mind at its lowermost level.