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University of Iowa News Release

Jan. 11, 2005

Sundiata Recounts Kidney Transplant In Acclaimed One-Man Show

Spoken-word poet Sekou Sundiata will perform "blessing the boats," a one-person multi-media performance that mixes humor, poetry, drama, visuals and music to tell the life-affirming story of his battle with renal failure and his survival through a kidney transplant, at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Jan. 21 and 22, in the Hancher Loft.

Hancher Loft is an intimate performance place in which the audience is seated on the Hancher stage. Entry is through the Hancher Stage Door, by the loading dock.

In "blessing the boats," Sundiata -- a veteran of HBO's "Def Poetry Jam" -- combines elements of stand-up comedy, Griot storytelling, dance, literary reading and poetry in an intense performance that shows how, through artistic expression, the trials and triumphs of an individual can be transformed into something that can touch many people.

The title, "blessing the boats," comes from a poem by Lucille Clifton, who is also a kidney transplant recipient.

The Jan. 21 and 22 performances will culminate a four-day residency including free public events involving the UI Department of Theatre Arts, the University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics and the UI Roy J. and Lucille A. Carver College of Medicine.

-- At 3 p.m. Wednesday, Jan. 19, Sundiata will be joined by a kidney donor/recipient pair, a nephrology nurse and a kidney transplant family in a discussion in the 8th-floor solarium of UI Hospitals and Clinics; and

-- Sundiata will be the featured guest in a discussion at 10:30 a.m. Thursday, Jan. 20, in room 172 of the UI Theatre Building.

During the residency, he will also meet with medical students and healthcare professionals.

Sundiata was born in Harlem and came of age as an artist during the Black Arts/Black Aesthetic movement of the 1950s-70s. His work is filled with the sounds of blues, funk, jazz, Afro-Carribean percussion, and references to musicians including John Coltrane and Miles Davis.

A teacher of literature at New York City's New School University, Sundiata has inspired the work of artists including Ani DiFranco and M. Doughty of Soul Coughing. DiFranco has said, "Sekou Sundiata taught me everything I know about poetry."

Amiri Baraka has stated, "Sekou is one of the most distinctive and original DJALI (poet, historian, musician signifier) doing it. Sekou is Pre-Griot, meaning in the ancient tradition of 'The Gleeman.' Serious as light overhead in darkness."

In a review of Sundiata's recording "The Blueness of Dreams," critic Mitch Myers wrote, "Sekou Sundiata -- even his name is poetic. He's got it going on, as a spoken-word poet who embraces the hip-hop nation full on by engaging in hallucinatory rants that boggle the mind with their sheer virtuosity, as well as with an incredible grasp of referential black history and pop culture in general.

"With a warm, soothing voice that can become as urgent as a burning church, Sundiata lets the words tumble from his lips in a rhythmic stream-of-consciousness that illuminates a wealth of experience and maintains a tradition that runs from Langston Hughes to Amiri Baraka to Gil Scott-Heron and up to Chuck D of Public Enemy."

Willard Jenkins wrote for The Africana, "Poet Sekou Sundiata is in the vanguard of American poets. He writes, records, and performs on a broad range of topics, including: growing up in Harlem, Amadou Diallo, slavery and reparations, Mary J. Blige, making bombs from bullshit and Jimi Hendrix -- in short, he has referred to his style as 'Rhythm and News.'

"He delivers his brand of R-and-N in a subtle, baritone voice that won't blast you out of your seat, but will leave you with an impression of great substance."

And Bill Moyers, in his "Language of Life" series on PBS, asserted, Sekou Sundiata's "music comes from so many places, it is impossible to name them all. But I will wager that, if we could trace their common origin, we'd arrive at the headwaters of the soul. Listen carefully, and he'll take you there."

Diagnosed with kidney disease in 1995, Sekou lived a story familiar to thousands of people and their families. On the national list for a kidney transplant, he received dialysis for a year and half until, in January 1999, he received a kidney donated by his manager and close friend. After nearly a year in and out of the hospital, the transplant finally stabilized in December 1999.

"At the time, I didn't know much about (renal failure) or dialysis or transplantation," Sundiata admitted in an interview with "So, the fear and anxiety I felt was mainly due to ignorance. 

"(Even) when I became better informed, it was still difficult to imagine a full, active life on dialysis or with a transplant. All the patient literature I read about dialysis mentioned a return to a 'near normal' life. The words 'near normal' frightened me. I had a hard time accepting that my life would never be the same again.

"Transplantation was the most mysterious thing of all. In spite of what I had learned about the science behind it, I didn't completely trust the idea that I could live with someone else's organ."

Sundiata's profile on explains, "Sekou said he performs 'blessing the boats' in order to meet a broad mission, which includes offering comradeship and hope to others suffering from kidney disease, to communicate to healthcare providers the struggles and fears of kidney patients, and to educate the general public about kidney disease and raise awareness about organ donation, with a particular focus on the African American community, which is most at risk for kidney disease and which has a disproportionately low percentage of organ and tissue donors."

You can read the full iKidney profile of Sundiata, including quotations for "blessing the boats," at

The Jan. 21 and 22 performances of 'blessing the boats' are supported by the Roy J. and Lucille A. Carver College of Medicine, Amgen and Roche Pharmaceuticals through the University of Iowa Foundation, and the UI Year of the Arts and Humanities.

Tickets are $25 ($15 for UI student, $22.50 for senior citizens and $17.50 for youth) from the Hancher box office.

Hancher Auditorium box office business hours, beginning Jan. 18, are 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m. weekdays and 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Saturdays. From the local calling area, dial 319-335-1160. Long distance is toll-free, 1-800-HANCHER. Fax to 319-353-2284. People with special needs for access, seating and auxiliary services should dial 319-335-1158, which is equipped with TDD for people with hearing impairment who use that technology.

Tickets may be ordered on-line 24 hours a day, seven days a week through Hancher's website:

Orders may be charged to VISA, MasterCard or American Express. UI students may charge their purchases to their university bills, and UI faculty and staff may select the option of payroll deduction. Information and brochures may be requested by e-mail at

For UI arts information and calendar updates, visit To receive UI arts news by e-mail,

STORY SOURCE: University of Iowa Arts Center Relations, 300 Plaza Centre One, Suite 351, Iowa City, IA 52242-2500.

MEDIA CONTACT: Winston Barclay, 319-384-0073,

PHOTOS are available at

OTHER INFORMATION: Dr. Loreen Herwaldt is the contact for the medical events and medical information. She is available for interviews.