Chelsea Rivera grew up in a world divided by words.
At home, the 17-year-old spoke Spanish with her immigrant parents - her mother could not speak English. Outside, her words were English in an accent indiscernible from any other teen in New Bedford.
But when she stood on stage Sunday in the Old South Meeting House for the seventh annual Poetry Out Loud competition hosted by the Huntington Theatre Company, she recited “Bilingual/Bilingüe,’’ a poem by Rhina Espaillat, fluidly switching between lines in English and Spanish.
My father liked them separate, one there
One here (allá y aquí), as if aware
That words might cut in two his daughter’s heart
(El corazón) and lock the alien part
“All my nerves were gone and I blurred out the people,’’ Rivera said after delivering a passionate recitation of the poem to a crowd of about 60. “I just let all my emotions go through.’’
Rivera was one of 23 high school students selected from more than 20,000 statewide competitors to take the stage at the Meeting House and recite verse from memory.
Alongside her fellow participants she gesticulated urgently as she stood before the microphone, her words echoing under the ancient eaves.
The students sat in the front two pews, silently mouthing the words of the poems they had chosen as they nervously awaited their turn.
But after brief introductions from MJ “Mwalim DaPhunkeeProfessor’’ Peters, a University of Massachusetts Dartmouth professor serving as an emcee and providing musical accompaniment from behind a grand piano, the competitors’ anxiety dissolved and they lost themselves in the sonnets and songs of William Shakespeare, John Donne, Elizabeth Bishop, and other bards.
One girl grew more and more fiery as she bellowed into the microphone, reciting her poem with breathless passion. Her clenched fists trembled. She gritted her teeth. Then she ended her performance with a shy grin and a coy “thank you.’’
In the end, it was Stephanie Igharosa’s emotive rendition of “The Man With a Hoe’’ by Edwin Markham - the Randolph High School freshman’s favorite - that won over the judges, who named her the state champion.
O masters, lords and rulers in all lands,
How will the future reckon with this Man?
How answer his brute question in that hour
When whirlwinds of rebellion shake all shores?
She will go on to compete in Washington, D.C., in May.
“I felt like a different person; I became someone else,’’ Igharosa said after the judges crowned her with a small garland of ivy leaves.
Igharosa moved to Randolph from Benin City, Nigeria, five years ago, and traces of her accent - delicately precise consonants, long vowels - are apparent. “That person [in the poem] was saying she passes judgment, she’s commanding and authoritative.’’
As she stood on stage to receive her award, grinning and standing straight in her gray suit and red blouse, Igharosa began to cry. “I’m just really excited,’’ she said.
For the past seven years, the education wing of the Huntington Theatre Company has managed the statewide competition, which was formerly run by the Massachusetts Cultural Council.
“There’s something about a one-, two-, three-minute poem. These young people bring such understanding of universal themes like love, loss, fear,’’ said Donna Glick, the theater group’s director of education. “You don’t see their age. They get up there and you don’t see a high school student, you just see a person.’’
Nicholas Gilfor, 15, one of only two boys to compete, peered out at the audience from behind thick black-rimmed glasses as he performed “Monet Refuses the Operation’’ by Lisel Mueller, a fictional account of the esteemed French Impressionist resisting removal of the cataracts that inspired his distinct, blurry style.
“I had a connection - it wasn’t the main reason,’’ he said, adjusting his red tie beneath a black corduroy blazer. “But I take my glasses off sometimes now and just look at things.’’