Michael Wayne Turner III is a rebel poet in a bespoke suit, a thespian with a Frederick Douglas part, a raconteur of word and movement.
Michael Wayne Turner III is a star, and he is rising.
Turner has shared a stage with Beyonce and Daveed Diggs. He’s won the Moth Story Slam and multiple awards at the International Conference of Performance Art and Creativity. He is a trained thespian and dancer who’s had starring roles in the hip hop theatrical performance Word Becomes Flesh, in Chasing Mehserle (a story about grief and violence in Oakland), and in the Afrofuturistic production H.O.M.E.
Just a month ago, Turner’s most monumental achievement so far brought a thundering Oakland audience to its feet: the one-man hip hop production Hat Matter: Thoughts of a Black Mad Hatter.
Portrait of a Black dandy. (Courtesy of Michael Wayne Turner III)
It took almost a decade to bring to fruition his dream of Hat Matter, a show that reimagines Turner as a dapper, mildly unhinged wordsmith musing on identity, race, art, and style in the mold of Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter. His turn as a Black dandy is magnetic but it’s not just an on-stage persona. The three-piece suits and colorful patterns and top hats hanging on stage throughout the performance make up Turner’s everyday wardrobe; he even designed his character’s shoes from Koffi Noir—a handcrafted footwear company where he acts as creative director—himself.
Turner’s dandyism is like fashion-forward armor, protection against the expectations society has for a young Black man. It’s a way of renouncing a historical past that denied Black individuals autonomy and self-expression. It’s a way of defining himself by the energy and innovation of Harlem Renaissance movers and shakers like Langston Hughes, not through the prescriptions of society, race and community.
“That’s what’s become my personal brand,” Turner explains. “I only own one pair of jeans and before a few years ago I didn’t own any. For me, it’s about the choices that a hairstyle makes, that a few rings make, that a few tattoos when revealed make. The way you present yourself can invite someone to want to know more about you.”
Actor and writer Michael Wayne Turner III is also the creative director of footwear company Koffi Noir and cofounder of fashion label Honor.(Courtesy of Michael Wayne Turner III)
But while style is something of an obsession for Turner, it is his voice that is the epicenter of his art. A dancer and performer in his youth growing up in Houston, Turner’s literary ambition was triggered when he moved to the Bay Area as a teenager. There he discovered the arts organization Youth Speaks.
“I began seeing members of their community perform and it inspired me to flex my own writing skills,” Turner remembers. “I knew how to perform but I was extremely new to writing. What came out of it was something completely new to my peer group at that level.”
Turner derives his poetry and spoken word from hip hop culture, but what he does is not hip hop, per say. The artistic and cultural genre is a lens through which he views the world, not a musical genre he wishes to emulate. This is especially apparent in Hat Matter where the hip hop lyricism and rhythm of Turner’s voice is set to classical string music performed by Friction Quartet.
“Being born in the era of hip hop gives people the assumption that I love hip hop. I love it because it’s the era and culture I was born into, but I don’t listen to rap music typically,” says Turner. “[Hat Matter] is a collection of poems first. It’s then built in stories and these moments of speech making or critical dialogue on society.”
Hat Matter’s initial run at Oakland Theater Project was short but it struck a chord with the audience. "My soul is different after seeing your show," one woman told Turner after a performance. Another could barely speak to him over the tears his words inspired.
Michael Wayne Turner III performing in his one man show, 'Hat Matter.'(Nikolai Saafi/@kidbrwn)
He will again don the jaunty hats of his alter ego in the months to come.
“The stage for me is really a place to be honest without interruption, a place to be vulnerable without fear,” he says. “We’re looking to do this a few more times in the Bay Area because Oakland is at the heart of my life. Then we want to take this all over the country and a few choice places overseas.
And when he does, Turner’s tailored on-stage wardrobe will be more than just set dressing, it will foreshadow another project just itching to take flight: Honor, the fashion label he cofounded with a friend.
“I have a vision of what I want to do. I want to live in the theater and on the screen and in commercial and in print in very choice ways,” Turner says. "I’m just really excited about putting myself out into the world.”