Oct 21, 1998 at 12:00 am

It's like this. The first thing you're gonna do when you get to D.C. is forget about the Washington Monument. Forget you're a goddamn tourist in your own country. Tell yourself this ain't no test of good citizenship, you're no hero. Live -- for once -- outside the televised version of American history, see what that feels like. Stop snapping pictures: This ain't the Washington you know, the one in which you're supposed to feel supremely national and financially adequate. This is a war zone. Keep your eyes open if you wanna live. This is Dodge City you're looking at, you know what I'm saying? The housing projects. The ghetto.

His name is Raymond Joshua and he's a dealer. The kids worship him. He plays with them, buys them ice cream. "Everybody gonna get his," he tells them. He counts: one, two, three ... "Thirteen chocolate," he tells the ice cream man. "You got a rhyme or something?" the kids ask. Ray's a poet. He deals to survive.

Then his man gets shot in the head in the middle of a transaction. Ray runs, but the cops catch up. "Five to 10," the lawyer says; "you're a casualty of war." Ray doesn't want to hear this. "There's niggers out there doing mad shit and they're running free. I got a quarter pound of weed and you're telling me I got to serve five to 10 and there's not shit you can do for me?! Fuck this ol' casualty of war shit, man! I'm saying I'm just out there surviving!"

Now he's in the city jail and everybody wants a piece of him. But he's going to get out and meet with Lauren, and she'll take him to the poetry club to kick a few pieces. And that's gonna be his night. Lauren teaches creative writing in prison. "I shot three motherfuckers and I didn't know why/ I guess I just wanted to see something die." Ray still remembers that poem. But now he's got to talk to his people and tell them: no more shooting, no retaliation. Dodge City ain't breaking up -- this ain't the Temptations. If you wanna be free, you have to be free inside.

Slam. Call it drama vérité, guerrilla-style filmmaking, a formidable performance piece by director Marc Levin (Gang War), producer Richard Stratton (eight years for smuggling marijuana), actor-poet Saul Williams (Ray) and poet Sonja Sohn (Lauren). It's about a real prison, with real prisoners and real prison guards. It's about kicking rhymes until there's nothing left but the freedom. Like Ray says, "This ain't no metaphor. This is my life."

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