Press Room

“As intellectually stimulating as its fluid, nonstop action is overwhelming…Fast, confrontational, reflective by turns, and packed with music and dance as propulsive as the years when the groups were spawned…Volatile, fiery choreography and spirit-moving blues, jazz, work-song and Latino songs…Show stopping numbers…A well-deserved, prolonged standing ovation…Power to the people, indeed!”—San Francisco Chronicle

“As relevant and as thought-provoking as it is, Party People is also mightily entertaining…From the extraordinary opening musical number that creates historical context for this intertwining story of the Panthers and the Lords, we become caught up in the flow of revolutionary zeal…The audience was instantly on its collective feet at show’s end, applauding thunderously, shouting and hooting.”—Theater Dogs

“People can (and should) debate how Party People stands as a political statement, but as a piece of theater it’s a crusher. Maybe it’s all too much for Oregon, but the Berkeley crowd ate it up. And why shouldn’t they? The show is good for: Revolutionaries, bystanders and regretful sellouts alike. The show is not good for: The Man.”—Edge San Francisco

“This play is extraordinarily valuable, it’s crucial to an understanding of that turbulent time…Let me tell you, I was there, and this play captures us. It captures the coalition of black and brown young people trying to make change and fighting the repression that came down against us.”—Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panthers with Huey P. Newton

“High-energy, vibrant, roller coaster ride—via dialogue, monologue, poetry, music and dance—of the rise and fall of the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords, two minority-based revolutionary groups of the 1960s and 1970s.”—Ashland Daily Tidings

“Thrilling…A relentlessly kinetic musical memoir about the ambitions and regrets of 1960s revolutionaries…Powerful and raw…Millicent Johnnie’s choreography is haunting, evoking complicated themes with simple movements. The music, which incorporates salsa, hip-hop, gospel and blues, is flat-out hypnotic…Let the production wash over you like a jagged theatrical collage, [and] Party People will leave its mark on you.”—San Jose Mercury News / Bay Area News Group

“This show is all about feeling and, more generally, humanity…Takes the standard musical formula and completely rips it up, unceremonious shreds it to pieces, and thankfully refuses to acknowledge the restrictions of standard theater convention. And thank our lucky stars for that. This is pure adrenaline.”—Stark Insider

“You’re in for an exhilarating evening…Under the direction of Liesl Tommy, the evening’s insistent and infectious music, including the hip-hop (of which I confess, I am not a fan), the choreography, scenic and lighting design, camera projection and general stage craft are all original and all first rate. The talented actors make the topnotch writing come alive. Party People has outstanding visceral, emotional and intellectual impact. That’s very rare in one piece of theater.”—Berkeleyside

“A dazzling creation by the New York-based theatre collective known as UNIVERSES…Party People is an artful mixture of spoken poetry, hip-hop theatre, blues, jazz, gospel and rap. Mesmerizing monologues punctuate this well-balanced theatrical potpourri.”—KLCC Radio Eugene

“The New York performance group Universes — with their dazzling display of linguistic fireworks — make Def Poetry Jam seem like a meeting of the Dead Poet’s Society.” - Boston Bay-State Banner

”For what these brilliant wordsmiths really do—and do with the kind of verbal and musical facility old Bill Shakespeare engaged in when modern English itself was in its earliest stages of development—is nothing short of reinventing the multiplicity of mother tongues in which they negotiate their world on a daily basis.” - Chicago Sun-Times

”A headlong explosion of poetry, percussion, and multi-culti musical exploration that absolutely demands to be seen.” - The Boston Globe

”The group’s musical sophistication is especially surprising. Blasting through the fractured syntax of New York urban culture, the quintet exhibits the melodic veracity of a seasoned doo-wop group and the contrapuntal percussion of an adroit rhythm section.” - Variety

“Call this ‘Stomp’ for the larynx…Those who have previously dismissed rap and hip-hop as bastardized and anti-intellectual will findSlanguage a captivating glimpse of a much-maligned movement. These eloquent practitioners confirm that modern poetry, so sadly marginalized in recent decades, can still resonate in our contemporary culture.” - Los Angeles Times

”…exuberant, insightful…they have created something special, a work of heart and soul that distills the essence of the city.” - The New York Times

”An effervescent, racially mixed group who call themselves Universes...are as likely to kick some poetry as break out into a capella singing, to orchestrate a vocal exercise as they are to burst into a step show....Their energy and realness is unmatchable.” - The Village Voice

Slanguage will catch you by surprise…snap you to attention…Whether you feel like a true urban American or an absolute alien to this culture,Slanguage is a great experience.” -

”What we are witnessing here is the unmistakable birth of new art for a new generation.” - The New York Theatre Experience

”With an unremitting athletic urgency, the performers ripped through a kaleidoscopic tour of urban street language as it was, is and might be. It’s a wild, rattling ride, spilling over with humor, passion, insight and political awareness, with the occasional shuttle to pathos, lest we forget that ghetto life ain’t all fun and games.” -Anchorage Daily News

”Slang offers a common ground between young and old, urban and rural, white and ethnic.Slanguage makes the cast’s verbal art — and the cast members themselves — visible to audiences who typically would not see or hear them. And that’s a good thing.” - The Courier-Journal of Louisville, KY

Click the ACCORDION tabs below for full articles.

San Francisco Gate on Party People

'Party People’ review: Black Panthers, Young Lords reborn
By Robert Hurwitt Updated 12:48 pm, Monday, October 27, 2014

1.0Party People: Docudrama.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that a dynamic drama about the legacies of the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords should go over so much better in Berkeley than it did at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. There were, after all, a few Panther veterans in the Berkeley Repertory Theatre audience at Friday’s opening of “Party People,” and more than a few with strong memories of the party’s heyday — pro, con and mixed.
But it was clearly a surprise to co-author and performer
William Ruiz when he challenged a random member of the audience to name the first item in the Lords’ 13-point program and promptly received the answer, “Self-determination for Puerto Ricans.” The Panthers and Lords’ platforms are printed in the program, but it still seemed a pretty good omen for the well-deserved prolonged standing ovation “Party” received.

Fast, confrontational, reflective by turns, and packed with music and dance as propulsive as the years when the groups were spawned, “Party” is a much more immersive experience at the Rep’s intimate Thrust Stage than it was at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. Created by the performance group Universes (Ruiz, his sister Mildred Ruiz-Sapp and her husband, Steven Sapp) with director Liesl Tommy for the festival’s ongoing American Revolutions: The United States History Cycle, it was extensively revised in the Rep’s Ground Floor program this summer. The result is tighter and more focused in its chaotic theatricality, and seems more meaningfully balanced in its generational conflict.

That conflict is part of a complex vision that makes “Party” as intellectually stimulating as its fluid, nonstop action is overwhelming. The Panthers and the Lords are celebrated for their vision, courage and community programs. But they’re criticized as well. Based in part on Universes’ extensive interviews, the internal rifts and tyrannies, paranoia, violent abuse of members, endemic sexism, and destructive drug use in both parties is vividly displayed — as is the zealotry of the FBI’s notorious (and murderous) COINTELPRO subversion. Meanwhile, the party veterans are challenged both by their children and a rising 21st century generation of digital and hip-hop rebels.

Two of those rebels are the prime movers of the story that slowly and slyly emerges from the exciting vortex of frequent Universes collaborator
Millicent Johnnie’s volatile, fiery choreography and the spirit-moving blues, jazz, work-song and Latino songs (original music by Broken Chord). Ruiz’s comically serious hip-hop artist Jimmy, nephew of Jesse J. Perez’s richly conflicted Lord veteran, and Christopher Livingston’s no less dynamic rapper and video artist Malik, son of an imprisoned Panther, have gathered their elders for a retrospective exhibit that turns into a performance confrontation.

Intense, sharply performed scenes — from Oakland to Chicago (the murder of
Fred Hampton) and beyond — alternate with showstopping numbers by a charismatic Sapp, golden-voiced Amy Lizardo, the irresistible Ruiz and magnetic Ruiz-Sapp, C. Kelly Wright, Michael Elich, Sophia Ramos, J. Bernard Calloway and Reggie D. White.

Even the stinging irony critiques hurled between generations — failure to achieve goals, irony over activism — honor the revolutionary spirit. The fundamental American principle is richly reaffirmed: Power to the people, indeed.

Robert Hurwitt is The
San Francisco Chronicle’s theater critic. E-mail: Twitter: @RobertHurwitt

1.0Party People: Docudrama. By Universes (Steven Sapp, Mildred Ruiz-Sapp, William Ruiz). Directed by Liesl Tommy. Through Nov. 16. Berkeley Rep’s Thrust Stage, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Two hours, 40 minutes. $29-$89, subject to change. (510) 647-2949.

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KBOO Community Radio

Universes 'Party People' at OSF

CLICK HERE for an additional Audio Interview

program:  Stage and Studio
program date:  Tue, 08/28/2012

A special look at Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Party People written by Mildred Ruiz-Sapp, Steven Sapp and William Ruiz, a.k.a. Ninja of Universes.  Party People documents an historic time when the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords worked together to make revolutionary social change during the turmoil of the 60s and 70s in America. Dmae Roberts talked with the writers, performers and founders of the innovative theatre group Universes who blend hip hop, dance, poetry into high performance theatre.
Dmae finds out how the founders of Universes met at Bard College and started working in poetry clubs before becoming a theatre group. They talk about their unique style of theatre and the process of creating the play as well as the legacy of the Black Panters and Young Lords in their own neighborhoods.


Party People Mini-Review: 
There are few times in theatre where you can witness a new genre coming alive before your eyes. Party People is one of those times. Commissioned in 2009 for American Revolutions: the United States History Cycle, Universes spent three years working on this project and interviewed more than 20 of the veterans of the Black Panthers and the Young Lords, whose social movements during that period left a complicated legacy.
Party People makes for an unflinching look from a variety of perspectives both the heroic efforts of party members to enact social programs to help the impoverished in their communities and the violence that erupted throughout the tumultuous period during the civil rights era. The play begins with an epic musical number infused with power and passion with Universes' Mildred Ruiz-Sapp's stunning vocals and the charged poetry of Steven Sapp and William Ruiz.
Part collage, poetry, live concert with dazzling light shows and video montages, Party People is grounded by a solid story line. The main action takes place in an art installation  about the very history the play examines. As young artists go through tech rehearsals for the art opening, Black Panther and Young Lords members who were interviewed for the 'show' recall their memories and come to grips with their past. In this artshow within an artshow, Party People is an amazing internal look at this time period as well as the responsibilities of artists when creating art based on real people and history.
The dramatic turning point for the play comes when the veterans of political change interact with each other at the art installation. Secrets are revealed and old wounds open up again as they face friends, allies and deep-seated conflicts. The stellar OSF cast led by Universes offers OSF actors a chance to play cultural roles that expand their versatility. It's novel to hear passionate singing and see hip hop moves by actors with strong classical training.
Party People defies genre and categorization. All one needs to know is that something electric and monumental came alive when OSF and Universes staged this play. There is so much potential for the play to tour in other parts of the country so this important and often overlooked time period isn't forgotten nor the lives that shaped it.
Party People runs through November 3rd in OSF's New Theatre and is directed by Liesl Tommy, who last directed the critically acclaimed play Ruined at OSF in 2010. For  more info or tickets  Or call 541-482-4331 or 800-219-8161.

Background from OSF: "The Black Panther Party was a revolutionary leftist African-American organization active from 1966 to 1982 and was founded on the principles outlined in their Ten-Point Program: “Land, Bread, Housing, Education, Clothing, Justice and Peace.” They instituted a number of social programs to alleviate poverty and improve health among inner city black communities.
Likewise, the Young Lords, a Puerto Rican nationalist group founded as a human rights movement in 1968, championed health care, education and tenants’ rights for Latinos. J. Edgar Hoover saw the organized activity of these groups as a threat to the nation’s internal security, and had them and other revolutionary movements infiltrated by his FBI Counterintelligence Program. These agents escalated the growing distrust and violence in the parties, and in time, the community and political achievements of the Black Panther Party and the Young Lords have been overshadowed by the often confrontational and militant tactics."
UNIVERSES spent months traveling the country speaking with members of the two organizations and listening to their recollections, inspiring a theatrical re-imagining of this significant period in American history. The interweaving of the stories moves us to reconsider these movements, the impetus for their formation, and work toward a better future for all Americans."

TCG on Party People

index From the Executive DirectorThe Ripple Effect Teresa Eyring Early this fall I visited Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where I had the pleasure of immersing myself in that venerable company’s wide-ranging repertoire. Six plays were performing at the time, including three Shakespeares; an entertaining mash-up of Medea, Macbethand Cinderella; and a new play based on LBJ’s 1964 election and the fight for civil rights for African Americans. But for me, it was the sixth production that truly drove home the lesson that a theatre piece can branch out on multiple levels to touch not only the community where it’s playing but audiences near and far, even those who may not have actually seen the performance. “The play’s the thing,” all right, but the play may also be just the tip of the iceberg. The show I’m speaking of was Party People, a multimedia piece created by the New York–based ensembleUniverses, which used music, spoken word and dance to reexamine a controversial episode in our cultural history—the rise and fall in the 1960s and ’70s of the Black Panthers and Young Lords. The show spotlights the activism of these two outlaw entities, both of which sponsored important social programs, such as before-school breakfast and health care, in their impoverished communities. Party People also uncovered some of the internal strife that existed as the movements were dismantled, in part through the infiltration of police and government informants. In order to create the piece, commissioned by OSF as part of its American Revolutions history project, the Universes ensemble spent three years interviewing members of the Black Panthers and Young Lords. Immediately following the performance I attended, Steven Sapp, Mildred Ruiz and William “Ninja” Ruiz stayed on for a conversation with the audience. The room was packed with a multigenerational, racially diverse group representing a variety of political and social viewpoints. OSF is a “destination theatre,” so many of the attendees were visiting from other cities. Students from a San Francisco high school urged Universes to bring the piece to their school. As teens, they felt distanced from the historical moment of the play, but they also found its messages resonating with our times and their lives. One audience member expressed concern about the play’s suggestion that revolution is what’s needed in our society today—isn’t this, he queried, just a small step away from anarchy? There was a scholar present who asserted that the Universes artists, because of the depth and breadth of their research, are now the leading experts on the living history of the Panthers and Lords. (It’s inspiring to hear how artists can serve as experts and thought leaders on major topics of our times.) Another young person raised his hand and asked, “If there was one thing you want us to take away from this show, what would it be?” The artists’ valuable answer: First,read—it’s important to read everything you can and stay informed about the world around you. Second, remember change is accomplished in the small things you do, right in your own neighborhood—picking up trash on a particular street, helping someone you know in need. As the post-show conversation drew to a close, about a third of the hands in the room were still waving, eager to take the floor—evidence, for me, of the show’s emphatic ripple effect in the Ashland com-munity and beyond. I was driven the next day to the airport by the shuttle company owner—a grandmother—who told me what she was learning about the plays at OSF, and about the world at large, just by doing airport runs. Among her recent passengers, remarkably, were aging members of the Black Panthers and Young Lords who had flown to Ashland to see the play. The driver’s experience was enriched by the direct conversations she had with them about their lives and their reactions to the work onstage. While the historical period addressed in Party People is 1967 and beyond, All the Way by Robert Schenkkan deals with the 1964 election of Lyndon B. Johnson and the complicated politics around race at that time. And so another ripple took shape in the interaction between the plays themselves, as they generated reflections among spectators about a complex time in our sociopolitical history.   Now we’re in another time of change—one in which we need to recognize the potential our theatres have to affect the world around them, through the work itself and through the currents that theatres, artists and plays can send through a community and far beyond. In this issue of American Theatre you’ll find coverage of Theatre Facts 2011, highlighting the fiscal strengths and weaknesses that currently characterize the field. Once again, subscription numbers have caught the attention of some members of the media, and Jonathan Mandell’s article reveals the latest thinking on ticketing practices—from the overwhelming fatigue that is felt by some because of the perennial focus on subscriptions, to the pressing need, voiced by TCG managing director Kevin Moore, for multiple strategies that recognize different audience needs. As Party Peopledemonstrated at OSF, we can expand our thinking—not just about how audiences are brought into our theatres, but about how powerful and multidimensional the relationship can be between the plays we produce and the communities in which we live.

The Five Point Star

SPRING TRAINING through April 28, and no, it is not baseball

April 26, 2013 By Kate Dobbs Ariail in Theater reviews

PlayMakers Repertory Company is wrapping up an intense year with a fascinating PRCpresentation by the theatrical troupe Universes, in the Kenan Theatre. April 24 saw the world premiere of Spring Training, co-commissioned by PRC and Carolina Performing Arts as part of The Rite of Spring at One Hundred project. Since Universes is neither a dance company, a traditional theater company nor a traditional music ensemble, but a group that uses theatricality to fuse poetry and politics with mouth and body music, the result of their investigation of The Rite of Spring is quite different from any we’ve seen or heard during this extended Spring season. Chay Yew, artistic director of Chicago’s Victory Gardens Theatre, guided and directed this production.

The troupe Universes, at PRC2 through April 28, with the commissioned work SPRING TRAINING. Photo courtesy PRC.

Spring Training opens with the well-known notes played by the bassoon–but here sung by Mildred Ruiz-Sapp, as her cohorts commence creating a layered set of rhythms. The music they make with vocalizations and body-beats is fantastic, and the complex rhythms and counter-rhythms are quite Stravinsky-esque. For a few moments, it seems that this will be a musical performance. But soon the stories begin, and four characters appear from the words. They do not initially seem connected, except by the tissue of rhythm and chorus in which they nestle, but commonalities emerge. They are stories of people struggling in the the spring of their lives, and reflecting on that “spring training” in their latter days. In each story, there is something about community, and something about wisdom from the elders. And in each story, there is death. One notable thing among the many that set this Rite apart is the absence of the idea of sacrifice. In the original Stravinsky/Nijinsky/Roerich music/ballet/visualization, and in most of the subsequent dance versions, the Chosen One is sacrificed by the community for its ongoing good, and she acquiesces in that, as it is her community, too. InSpring Training, death is not so methodical or purposeful. A random drive-by shooting has no renewing effect. In one story, a man tries to get his family to safety when a riot breaks out in his own neighborhood. His car is stopped by the mob; he proves his solidarity by shouting out “let the motherfucker BURN” and they let him pass. This soundeth not like springtime, pagan or otherwise. Shifting the focus toward the individuals within the community–to each of us dancing to the death–and the painful acquisition of wisdom while surviving life really flipsThe Ritearound. I’ve lost track of how many versions I’ve seen and heard since the inception of CPA’s project last September, but none of them has made me so completely reconsider the whole matter. Now that’s art. Spring Training continues in the Kenan Theatre of the UNC Center for Dramatic Art, Chapel Hill, only through April 28 (two shows on Sunday). This is the small theatre–reservations recommended.

D.C. Theatre Scene

Ameriville OCTOBER 25, 2010 BY BEN DEMERS Moments of great strife in American history, from the Civil War, to the Great Depression, to 9/11, have  wrought considerable pain, suffering, and sadness, while inspiring some of our greatest and most vital works of art. In their explosive, moving Ameriville, theater collective Universes utilizes the prism of Hurricane Katrina to explore forgotten corners of our fractured American landscape, ultimately painting a dire, yet hopeful vision of our struggling nation.

William Ruiz (A.K.A. “Ninja”), Gamal Chasten, Steven Sapp, and Mildred Ruiz (Photo: Danisha Crosby)

Now playing at Round House Theatre in Bethesda, Ameriville takes a pointed look at the current state of America through a fluid, energetic blend of spoken word, song, and dance. Each of Universes’ four members rotate through narrating duties, commenting on race relations, poverty, disaster relief, and tradition. Before sitting down to write the play, Universes lived in New Orleans, soaking up the history and culture and interviewing countless residents. As a result of their attention to detail and real investment in the lives of everyday people, their staging boasts a diverse spectrum of believable, relateable characters. Street vendors, children, tourists, barbers, hustlers, musicians, and others all come to life in Universes’ breathing portrait of a city and a nation on the mend. The dynamic script and spirited performances reveal a polished ensemble with undeniable writing and acting skills. The play is peppered with ingenious rhymes and vivid imagery, and the foursome’s relentless energy and careful pacing transforms a series of well-written pieces into a breathless, cohesive whole that keeps the audience on the edge of their seats for the duration of the show. Steven Sapp and Gamal Abdel Chasten inhabit a slate of memorable, complex characters, but perhaps their best moment comes during a hilarious display of rapid-fire one-upmanship. Each actor tries to prove he is “more black” than the other, lampooning widely-held stereotypes with an increasingly ridiculous string of hyperbole. Their natural talents, combined with their evident onstage rapport, make this scene a delight. William Ruiz, otherwise known as “Ninja”, proves himself quite the vocal chameleon, delivering captivating turns as a sleazy TV pitchman, a drunk Mardi Gras reveler harboring secret pain, and a child with some disturbing insights concerning human folly and cruelty throughout the ages. The musical component of the show is equally impressive. Universes creates a variety of sonic landscapes with just their voices, conjuring R & B, gospel, traditional, and salsa numbers with pitch-perfect a cappella and skillful beat-boxing from Ninja.  The group uses musical numbers primarily as beats between scenes, using the repetition of phrases to establish a particular emotion or context. For example, Universes constantly turns to verses of “How high is the water…….3 feet high and risin’… high is the water……..5 feet high and risin’” to remind the audience of the flooding’s terrible, inexorable assault. Frequently, the group will mix in solos to flesh out a particular character or punctuate a scene. In a group loaded with musical talent, Mildred Ruiz-Sapp truly stands apart.With a gospel background and loads of natural ability, she sails through renditions of “House of the Rising Sun” and original solos across many styles, mixing in powerful belts and precise vocal runs to electrifying effect. The visual design bears mention as well. Well-conceived lighting choices, abstract image and video collages, and judiciously selected projections of New Orleans aid the performers in transporting the audience into their world and eliminate the need for extensive sets that might otherwise limit Universes’ movement and versatility. In fact, the group only utilizes a simple wooden table and four chairs throughout the entire performance. During the post-show talkback, Universes emphasized their group’s underlying goal to explore pressing social issues and to empower the audience to seek much needed change.  In a cultural landscape dominated by awful reality television and the destructive 24-hour news cycle, this message  has never seemed more vital. The show reminds us of the power of a small group of artists to make the audience reconsider their reality and ask “Is this good enough?”. Consider Ameriville required viewing.Ameriville By Universes Directed by Chay Yew Produced by Universes Theater Company, Inc. Reviewed by Ben Demers

2009 Humana Festival of New American Plays

Universes Ensemble's Ameriville - An Overview
2009 Humana Festival of New American Plays
Mar 6, 2009 JD Eames

Ameriville, by Universes, opens the 33rd Annual Humana Festival of New American Plays.


The birth of the play Ameriville is New Orleans in the wake of 2005’s Hurricane Katrina. Ameriville is not, however, about New Orleans but America itself. Presented at the 33rd Annual Humana Festival of New American Plays, Ameriville explores America’s troubles. The play shines a spotlight on racism both past and present, the exploitation of the poverty class, and the conundrum of politics. The play weaves together diverse issues such as war, climate change, gentrification, and the mortgage collapse, highlighting their interconnectedness.
Ameriville is a series of American stories, from the citizens of New Orleans to soldiers in Iraq. The play presents a warning of the “storms to come” and a call for change. With powerful performances, lots of humor, the play is also uplifting and is a call to rebuild America itself.
Ameriville Staging at Actor's Theatre of Louisville
Held in Actors Theatre of Louisville's 318-seat arena theatre (the Bingham), Ameriville's set is sparse. The stories are woven together by powerful actors, with the aid of four chairs, two tables, lights, projection, and sound. In one example, the flood and the death it brought to New Orleans is vividly evoked on stage.
Music serves throughout Ameriville and ranges from hip-hop, jazz, Motown, and Spanish Bolero to a variant of “Old MacDonald.” Language and word challenges, body movement and foot stomping are all tools of Universes charismatic performers.
Universes Ensemble
Ameriville’s heart is its creators, Universes, a collaborative group of artists who write and perform their plays. Much as been written about how to define Universes: are they a hip-hop theatre company, or some kind of art-fusion group? Universes defines itself as “multi-disciplined writers and performers who fuse Poetry, Theater, Jazz, Hip-Hop, Politics, Down Home Blues and Spanish Boleros to create moving, challenging and entertaining theatrical works.” While the ensemble may defy definition, they provide a highly theatrical, entertaining experience that is the essence of live staged drama. Universes' states on their website that the group creates "work that is suitable for anyone who lives life."

Theater Louisville on Ameriville

Ameriville Reviewed by Todd Zeigler 

Thank God for useful metaphors. Ameriville, the opening selection of the 2009 Humana Festival, is so much more than a typical play or musical. UNIVERSES, the quarter of creators/performers responsible for the 90-minute piece, use the full panoply of their talents to address the state of post-Katrina New Orleans in the broader context of the state of our union. Ameriville rolls along like moving water: it has myriad paces, pitches, volumes, tributaries, and when one reaches the mouth and sees the great expanse of the body, a sense of sublimity washes over. The piece opens with rhythm and song. The performers converge from the theatre's corners onto the stage, two tables and four chairs their only set pieces/props. Barely taking an eighth note to breathe, they weave a tapestry of the sounds, colors, and characters of New Orleans — and America. Many of the characters are familiar: the carnival barker, the voodoo lady, the old timers in the barber shop joking about the hardships they've endured. The group uses them as icons, posing questions and responses (not always answers) about how New Orleans is to cope with the tragedy — and the inequalities of all types exposed by the storm. Does health care really care? Is "urban renewal" just an indifferent euphemism for "nigger removal"? Why are the people of the United States so afraid of each other? The piece has a "compiled-from-interviews" feel similar to other contemporary dramatic works such as The Laramie Projectand last year's Humana entry, This Beautiful City. With this format comes the inherent risk of letting the interview material do all the work. It's not clear how much of Ameriville is compiled and how much is UNIVERSES' creation. The group brings the entirety of the subject matter to life with engrossing rhythms, song, and multimedia that keep the show jumping. Another evolution beyond similar works,Ameriville doesn't merely dwell on our problems. It envisions answers. The piece closes with visions of divided peoples forming a new whole, a city for all called Ameriville. The moods, modes, and rhythms that opened the show come full circle to a thrilling conclusion. This review is shorter than most, principally because it is difficult to put into words impressions that are so thoroughly rooted in mood.Ameriville is an experience on many levels: percolating, bubbling, and broiling, flooding the Bingham theatre to the very last row. Hold your breath and dive in.

Total Theater on Ameriville



Review by: Chales Whaley

March 2009

Four extraordinary actors performing as the Universes ensemble delivered a powerful inspirational opening for Actors Theater of Louisville’s 33rd annual Humana Festival of New American Plays with their incisive, gripping ruminations called Ameriville.
Inspired by Hurricane Katrina’s devastating effect on New Orleans, the play moves through bursts of song, skillful character studies, strikingly effective sound and lighting, and vigorous monologues toward a damning critique of America – “the greatest story ever told, bought, and sold” -- that yet holds hope as “a work in progress.”
Gamal Abdel Chasten, Mildred Ruiz, William Ruiz a.k.a. Ninja, and Steven Sapp are almost constantly in motion under Chay Yew’s energetic direction, which dramatically shapes this theatrical collage. Their new collaboration with its greater depth and expansiveness is a vast advance over their parochial but highly praisedSlanguage from the 2004 Humana Festival. As in that piece, Mildred Ruiz’s gutsy bluesy singing is a knockout.
On Paul Owen’s simple set -- four chairs and two tables used in various configurations -- the actors create episodes about New Orleans voodoo queen Marie Laveau, musings about being black, homelessness, prison populations and bodies along with Mardi Gras costumes and beads floating in the water after Katrina, houses washed away, the lingering smell in the aftermath, well-meaning and clueless tourists, and greedy speculators looking to make a buck from the misery. “Whether you like it or not, there’s a Katrina brewing in your neighborhood,” warns one actor. A stinging vignette about gun sales promotions is cleverly caustic as is one about “the original boys in the hood.” (meaning a white sheet). There’s also a marvelous ramble about people and groups that hate each other. It demonstrates the looniness of the whole thing by noting toward the end that pygmies hate tall people.
Another potent mini-drama focuses on an American female soldier in Iraq whose daughter, mother, and father drowned back home when Katrina broke through the levees. Heavy with grief, she nevertheless carries out orders to shoot and kill an Iraqi insurgent and the daughter he is holding.
In a telling swipe at nonsensical religious beliefs we’re treated to a supposed students’ harebrained classroom research paper about God creating all things, including prisons and torture. God is an American, he concludes.
Presiding over a mock funeral, a minister announces, “We have come to bury America, not to praise her.” That America, he says, is the one that allows its people to be without health insurance and is bloated with corporate, political, and individual greed and corruption.
Wiping the slate clean and starting over without “the Three Stooges -- Uncle Ben, Uncle Tom and Uncle Sam – “we’re going to make this country a village”: America reborn as Ameriville with liberty and justice for all.

The Courier-Journal on Ameriville

Crusading troupe sees trouble in 'Ameriville'

The New York-based ensemble Universes mixes poetry, storytelling, original songs and adaptations of popular tunes to create a unique theater experience that the group hopes will not only capture the attention of audiences, but will also drive folks to make a
difference in the world around them.

In "Ameriville," part of this year's Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville, Universes uses the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the city of New Orleans to shed light on issues of race, poverty and politics in America. As you listen to Mildred Ruiz, a founding member of Universes, sing, "The Lord told Noah to build him an arky, arky," you may get lost in the power of her voice or in
nostalgia, remembering how you sang that song in church as a child.

But as soon as you've let your guard down, Ruiz hits you with the line, "But where was Noah when the levees started breaking." In an instant, Ruiz has morphed a playful children's song into a heartbreaking hymn about an American tragedy.

"America feels like it's over," said Ruiz, who got her start in music and performance by singing in choirs as a child. "We just came back from New Orleans, and a lot of areas are still the same. Some houses are still collapsed onto the ground. People are still not home. Some people won't come back home."

The title "Ameriville" was Ruiz's idea and stems from the notion of America being an interconnected village, not a sprawling nation of people with no ties to one another. "We should look at ourselves as a village, and a village takes care of its own," Ruiz said. "They say it takes a village to raise a child. Well, we got a child dying in New Orleans." Universes, which started about 12 years ago, grew out of a band of New York poets who got bored with traditional poetry readings, said founding member Steven Sapp, a former street dancer who studied writing and theater at Bard College. They decided to try out group performances, blending poetry, song and even movement, and soon got the attention of the theater world.

The members of Universes aren't strangers to Louisville. Universes led a group of performance art poets in creating the piece "Rhythmicity," which was featured in the 2003 Humana Festival of New Plays. It also has worked with the Actors Theatre apprentice program, teaching young actors how to create unique theatrical pieces of their own.

Universes also counts Louisville's own legend Muhammad Ali as an inspiration. "Ali was a major influence for me, and I'm not just saying that because I'm in Louisville," Universes member Gamal Abdel Chasten said. One of the first and best poems they say they've ever heard was,"Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee."

With the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Sapp said, "The bad things you thought about America really just blew up in your face." But Universes doesn't want audiences to leave Actors Theatre only to wallow in thoughts of a not-so-pretty piece of American history. "What we're looking to do with the piece is place responsibility in people's laps and ask them, 'What are you going to do now?'" Chasten said. But the group also doesn't want people to come to the show expecting to leave with solutions for racism, poverty and other issues hurting our nation.

"It's not to say we got the answer. We got the question, and we ask it well," said William "Ninja" Ruiz, a Universes member who got his start in performance as a rap artist. "All we can do is maybe spark something in somebody who might have the answer."

Rocky Mountain News

Denver's homeless play inspiring role
By Lisa Bornstein, Rocky Mountain News (Contact)
Published May 9, 2008 at 3 p.m. Updated May 9, 2008 at 6:33 p.m.


Photo by Michael Ensminger

Cast members in Curious Theatre Company's The Denver Project dress like people on Denver's streets. A young woman who goes by "Angel" was telling her story to Steve Sapp. She'd been a teenage prostitute and drug user, clean for one year and now living in a safe house provided by Providence Network. Sapp and his wife, Mildred Ruiz, were trying to learn something about what it means to be homeless in Denver in preparation for their new play, The Denver Project. "So how do you feel about us trying to write a play?" asked Sapp, his eyes smiling and his face framed by dreadlocks fringed with gray. Angel suggested a story line. "Maybe a lost girl who only knows men, and maybe she finds her way. I don't know if you're going to use God in her play," said Angel, 23, who had found God through Providence. "You tell me, what challenges do women face that men don't face?" asked Dee Covington, who would direct the play commissioned by Curious Theatre Company. "We struggle a lot more with emotions," Angel answered. "Do you guys believe in God?" Covington and Sapp nodded. "Yeah, you're good here," Covington said to Angel. A different approach Sapp and his wife have made their career taking theater into unfamiliar corners. Their theater company, Universes Poetic Theatre Ensemble, is based in the South Bronx, about five miles and a light year from Times Square. Rather than traditional scripts, they blend music, spoken-word poetry and movement in a style the two have evolved since they met at Bard College more than 20 years ago. The couple first worked with Curious two years ago, when they contributed a scene to The War Anthology. Artistic director Chip Walton suggested they work together again, which resulted inThe Denver Project, a leap from the usual narrative-based Curious project. "We fuse a lot of things together, so we kind of are bringing our Universes aesthetic into working with this company," Ruiz says. Over the past year, Sapp and Ruiz not only researched the lives of homeless people in Denver, they worked with Curious actors through a number of workshops. Some caught on immediately; others "really didn't get it," Sapp says. "In their minds, it's this hip-hop thing from New York. Strip all this stuff away, and we're just artists." A lifetime of drugs A few blocks from the women's safe house, Sapp visits a men's residence, where "Shawn," a Houston native, has been staying. Since getting busted for a huge quantity of LSD in his teens, Shawn has been in and out of group homes and rehab. He overdosed in Virginia with a crack pipe in his mouth and a needle in his arm, he says. He got sober, but then found out his sponsor was using drugs. At the same time, Shawn suffered from epilepsy and had regular seizures. Now 34, he'd been in the home for a month when he met Sapp. "I have twin boys that I haven't held in my arms since they were born," Shawn said. "I don't even know where they're at. I just know they're in Texas." Behind the project The Denver Project incorporates poetry, gospel and jazz, interspersed with the central story of a man intent on dressing up Denver's parking meters - in clothing - for the Democratic National Convention. His home is the street, and he wants it to look its best. In addition to meeting with Denver's homeless population, Ruiz and Sapp dove into the research. She read 10-year plans, studies and magazines. He rode the bus, walked the streets and sat in on a city committee meeting. "I sat there for three hours and watched all these people talk around a big table, and nothing was done," he says. The cast will look like Denver, with actors of different skin tones and different ages. Akil Luqman, who played young Simba in the national tour of The Lion King, joins the company. "There's a young kid in the play because there's a huge youth population here that's homeless," Sapp says. Learning the city "I'm not from Denver; I'm from New York, the South Bronx," Sapp told "Flower," another resident at Providence Network. "Every place is different, so I'm trying to get a sense of Denver. I just kind of roam around during the day and night. The first night I ever spent in Denver I ended up on Colfax and I thought, 'Oh good God, here's where the drama is.' " Flower knew plenty about Colfax. She'd lived there, using drugs and having sex for money, since leaving her mother's house. She and her friends called themselves Alley Kids, and they sustained themselves by dumpster diving. Flower knew that the best time to hit 7-Eleven was at 2 a.m., when she could score free food. Being a prostitute, she said, wasn't like a TV show. "We dressed in baggy pants. You're not walking down the street wearing high heels and short skirts. It's not like that," she explained. "The drugs are out there, and that makes life a lot easier when you're on the street. It kills the time, and you don't have to worry about where you're gonna sleep. Because if you're smoking, you're not sleeping." Sapp explains The Denver Project to Flower. "My wife and I don't do it traditional. It's not what we call on-the-couch plays. We're poets, and we're from the blocks, from the streets," he says. "The average person who goes to a play, what do you want them to hear, what do you want them to know?" "Everyone should be homeless for once in their life," Flower answers. "It can be sad; it can be funny." or 303-954-5101 on Universes (Rhythm Road Tour)

25 April 2008
Poetic Theater Ensemble Enthralls Audiences on Six-Nation Tour
For “Universes” quartet, travel offers illuminating cultural exchange
The members of Universes are William “Ninja” Ruiz, Mildred Ruiz, Gamal Abdel-Chasten and Steven Sapp. (© H.N. Hershey)
By Lauren Monsen Staff Writer
Washington -- What happens when a New York-based poetic theater ensemble, whose unique brand of fusion art combines elements of hip-hop, blues, jazz, gospel and Spanish bolero, brings its act to six nations as disparate as Morocco, Tunisia, Turkey, Romania, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom?

According to members of the ensemble -- a quartet that calls itself Universes -- the result is a richly rewarding cultural exchange that highlights the power of music to bridge differences among people who might otherwise be separated by language, custom and national boundaries.

From January 26 to February 23, 2008, the four members of Universes -- all poets, playwrights, singers and actors -- traveled overseas as part of the U.S. Department of State’s “Rhythm Road: American Music Abroad” program, which introduced the group to audiences across six countries spanning North Africa and Europe.

Now back in their native New York, Universes founding members Gamal Abdel-Chasten, Steven Sapp and Mildred Ruiz recently spoke with about their creative efforts at home and on tour (the group’s fourth member, William “Ninja” Ruiz -- younger brother of Mildred -- was unavailable).

The quartet’s U.S. performances generally attract a diverse crowd -- good preparation for touring abroad, said Abdel-Chasten.  “We’re not surprised anymore” at the demographic mix of a typical Universes audience, he added.  But that wasn’t always the case.   “We started off in the poetry scene, so we started off with a poetry crowd,” Sapp recalled.

Over the group’s 11-year history, its repertoire evolved to embrace music and drama, as well.  Because of this, “our audience has expanded greatly -- it’s not just a younger urban crowd,” said Sapp.  “These days, you can see an elderly Jewish grandmother and a hip-hop kid in the same crowd” at a Universes show.

Universes performs original material, some of which is based on current events (such as the group’s emotionally charged “New Orleans,” a piece that dramatizes the tragic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in starkly personal terms).  Other pieces -- like the group’s rousing spiritual “Mahalia,” a tribute to gospel singer Mahalia Jackson -- may draw inspiration from an iconic musical figure, or from any intriguing idea.

Motifs can range widely, as evidenced by “Freedom Suite,” a collection of pieces structured around the theme of freedom; “Don’t Front,” which examines how to walk and talk in tough inner-city neighborhoods; and “Junior Calling,” a jazz piece focused on an inmate writing a poem from prison.

Authorship is shared evenly among the quartet’s members.  “We all write,” explained Abdel-Chasten.  “We all came together as writers and poets.  It’s a collaborative effort.”



Universes performs before a live audience. (© Marlis Momber)

Strong voices, compelling narratives and a dynamic stage presence have earned the group a broad base of fan support in New York and elsewhere.  As the group began its overseas tour, the challenge was to establish a similar rapport with a foreign audience.  Despite the quartet’s initial worries about being able to communicate across a language divide, it soon became apparent that the performers’ appeal was -- well, universal (or very nearly so).  Audiences, especially in countries that have had limited exposure to eclectic urban theater, poetry and music, “were very excited,” said Abdel-Chasten.  “To them, it was a new art form.”

The excitement was mutual.  “That was the most gratifying part of the trip: the interaction with our audience,” said Sapp.  People responded enthusiastically to Universes’ live performances, but “they also wanted to ask us about America,” he said.  Moreover, said Abdel-Chasten, “we got to work with local artists” in host countries.  “We jammed with them; we did a few writing workshops,” he said.  “A few times we had shows where we incorporated local artists onstage with us.”

During their travels, the New Yorkers were eager to learn about the cultural traditions they encountered.  “In Morocco, they had some instruments we’d never seen and some music we’d never heard of,” said Abdel-Chasten.  “Once you hear the music and connect on a human level, it brings everyone together.”  In fact, “one of our drivers in Morocco was a singer,” said Sapp.  “He began singing, and Mildred asked him to teach her the song.  She learned the lyrics phonetically, and we performed it at our next event.  The audience went crazy.  It just really opened things up.”

From that moment onward, the ensemble made a point of learning -- and performing -- a local folk song in each new country on the tour, whenever possible.  Adding some local flavor to each show “helped people relate to us,” said Abdel-Chasten.

Ruiz agreed that the opportunity for cultural exchange was invaluable.  “We enjoyed learning local songs,” she said, “and seeing people from other cultures interpret our music.”

Abdel-Chasten had vivid memories of an event in Romania, where Universes performed in front of a packed crowd.  “The audience included kids from a workshop we had conducted, but there were lots of older people, too,” he said.  “At first, we were apprehensive about how we would be received, but that night was amazing -- it was magical.  Mildred did a gospel piece called ‘Mahalia,’ and suddenly, everyone was in church.  It was incredible.  The kids loved it, and they opened up the rest of the audience to us.  People lined up afterward to get our autographs.”

He also was deeply impressed by the Islamic traditions of the three Muslim countries on the group’s itinerary.  “I was raised as a nonpracticing Muslim,” said Abdel-Chasten, “and I connected with what I saw in those places.  I prayed at the King Hassan II Mosque in Morocco, and at the Blue Mosque in Turkey.”

For Sapp, “the most striking impression of our trip was finding myself in a different world -- their world.  It was interesting to see things from a different perspective.”  Asked whether the group was able to change any perceptions about Americans, he said: “I know we did, in some cases.  We had a conversation with students in Tunisia.  I think they were surprised at how openly we spoke about certain things -- about where we’re from, what we’ve experienced.”


Although the group was traveling under the auspices of the U.S. State Department, there were no restrictions on anyone’s speech, said Sapp.  “U.S. officials told us we could say anything we wanted,” he recalled.  “The only advice they gave us was: ‘Don’t start a revolution.’”

If the quartet harbors any revolutionary tendencies, they are channeled into a restless creative drive that redefines “what theater is and who it speaks to,” in the words of the group’s members.  By evoking a contemporary urban landscape infused with both anger and hope -- and a strong dose of street humor -- “we try to portray the experiences of the community: the man or woman on the ground,” said Ruiz.

“It’s really about craft,” Sapp concluded.  “We may come across as free-wheeling, but we’ve worked hard at what we do, and we hope that comes across.”

The artists said they would welcome the chance to revisit the countries they toured and enlarge their circle of friends there.  “Our audience is diverse, wherever we go,” said Abdel-Chasten.  “We’d like to think that everyone takes away something different from our performances.”

Independent Weekly on Universes LIVE'

Universes Poetic Theater Ensemble's compelling mash-ups sample
urban poets and songwriters

Spoken street opera
MAY 2, 2007


Kenan Theater
Closed April 29

Urgent memo to both hands theater company and the public that first fell in love with them—particularly for the complex spoken, broken polyrhythms that made works like Imaginary Numbers and the first incarnation of Brooms (a play about saying yes) seem a cross between Gertrude Stein and early Steve Reich: There's some folks you've got to see and (particularly) hear. I'll wait here while you do it. No, really. Go ahead, put the paper down; dial up another browser tab. Enter the following phrase in the search box on universes don't front (for those particularly into alphanumerals, here's the Web address: The first word abbreviates the company's name, Universes Poetic Theater Ensemble. Their appearance at Kenan Theater last week signaled another step in Playmakers Rep's recently redoubled efforts to diversify the programming they present to the public.

In the clip, lifted from a 2002 performance on Russell Simmons' Def Poetry Jam, Mildred Ruiz's gospel-and-blues-inflected vocals and fist-slap, foot-stamp, heartbeat percussion forms the rhythmic matrix that company co-founders Gamal Abdel Chasten and Steven Sapp kite, flow and interrogate above, scissoring words on top of words. After all three delineate and demonstrate the kind of walk it takes to negotiate the urban checkpoints of tough East Side streets, Sapp sharply traces its cultural etymology, "before the signifying monkey stepped on the elephant's feet/ and got tangled up in brothers working on the chain gang/ and were stepping and fetching that cakewalk/ way before the black and white movies discovered us."

Awake and sing: The hip-hop dramatic performance of Universes Poetic Theater Ensemble

Photo courtesy of Playmakers Rep

The metaphor and reality of the long walk was key in several sequences on Saturday night. Another of Ruiz's characters complains that her feet hurt, though the path toward justice was nowhere near its end. The on-stage human rhythm section signaled a sensual stroll in places; elsewhere, a run for your life. As compelling as it is, the snippet doesn't tell the whole tale of what we saw last week. Not with two other vocalists/ speakers/ human percussionists named Irene Shaikly and Ninja adding to the complexity of the real-time, decidedly non-digital multi-tracking. Plus it only hints at the sophistication of the braiding in an extended narrative dealing with Hurricane Katrina. As Chasten changed the lyrics to the African-American work song "Let the Hammer Ring," and Ruiz inserted a line in the midst about Noah's ark from the Sunday school song "Rise and Shine," Sapp's character, a postal worker, asks if anyone has seen his mother. The rhythm changes ominously as the ensemble intones the words "Boom, Papa, Papa." The darkness intensifies following "Papa Was," a shared narrative about a hero who drowned while saving others improbably set to a mash-up of "Papa Was a Rolling Stone" interspersed with lines from "Proud Mary" and Grandmaster Flash.

Ultimately, the objects that are rolling on that post-Katrina river are bodies. After Air Force One's photo opportunity and the opportunism of the media, the rhythm section punctuates the silence of the final part with ragged gasps, and nothing more. At the end, the tag line come from Tom Waits. Katrina's final, all but whispered, lesson: "Misery is the river of the world. Everybody row." Elsewhere, the quintet freely weaves sampled songs and poets into a tapestry of urban life both rich and strange. An exuberant opening section juxtaposes Gil Scott-Heron with Nikki Giovanni, Nuyorican poet Reg E. Gaines, T.S. Eliot and Stevie Wonder, plus many more. Later, Ruiz's eerie voice keens through the Eurythmics' "The City Never Sleeps"—of all
things—to ground a multi-scene story about a child killed by his parents, and the case's unsatisfactory aftermath in the justice system. Intricate rhythms and intricate stories, told by artists who have to be as adept at polyrhythmic musical composition as they are at acting. The only things that could improve on what we saw would be a two-week run, preferably of one of their award- winning full-length works, instead of the greatest-hits showcase we saw last weekend. Not only is the region ready for it, it's been ready for some time now.

E-mail Byron at

Daily Nexus (CA) on Slanguage

Rhythm & Rhymes
Universe’s “Slanguage” Showcases Slam and Slang Poetry


By Sophia Kercher / Staff Writer
Published Thursday, March 1, 2007
Issue 85 / Volume 87

Black History Month went out with a slang Tuesday, Feb. 27 with Universes’ Universe’s “Slanguage,” presented by Arts & Lectures. Hailing from New York, the performance showcased Afro-Latin voices with a cast accomplished in alliteration and enunciation. The performance was loosely constructed around a subway ride in which from the Bronx to Brooklyn the audience experiences stops along the way revealing an urban underground. With text and movement the artists addressed the obstacles of poverty and assimilation. With the artists’ use of verbose language, it was at times easy to get lost in the message of the performance but the immense energy of the artists never missed a beat. The show featured the talents of Steven Sapp, performer and founder of Universe, he pumped up the audience with his verbal splendors alongside master of flows and beats performance artist Ninja. As fellow cast member Mildred Ruiz boomed songs and Mtume Gant seized the audience with subtle humor.

When all four actors took center stage it was overwhelming. The effusive language took over creating confusion. However, when one or two actors were the focus of the piece, the words became more powerful, capturing the poetry and message of the performance. No individual performer stood out. The ensemble worked collectively to support and showcase one another’s talents. As one performer would act out a piece, the rest of the cast would hum, drum or rhyme to present a story.

Each performer had the triple threat of being skilled at song, dance and acting, making up for the minimalist setup of the performance. The set was bare with only a few black boxes and a microphone, but the use of shadows, light and the vivacious movements of the performers decorated the stage. The program provided to theatergoers came complete with its own “Slanguage” dictionary and, from the looks of the predominately middle-aged and white audience, it was much needed. With word play like “Bubble Goose,” “Jibaro,” and ” Muhong,” the glossary was much appreciated for even students in the audience. The New York Theater Production may not have been throwing down rhymes to the right crowd - the show seemed more fit for the MultiCultural Center. What made this performance remarkable, however, was that it was able to draw out the audience. Responses of hollering and laugher could be heard throughout Campbell Hall. The performers were able to reach individuals who were not necessarily familiar with hearing gunshots in their neighborhood or coming from an American home where English is not their first language. Crowd members of all kinds leaving the hip hop theater event left revived and “aaight,” ready to bust out their own “diddy-bop walk.”

The Boston Globe on Slanguage

'Slanguage' benefits from word of mouth

By Sandy MacDonald, Globe Correspondent | July 23, 2005

Slang can be a slippery thing -- one minute a social passkey, the next the embodiment of passe. Steven Sapp, ringleader of Universes, a performance group spawned nine years ago by the Nuyorican Poets Cafe in New York, sacrifices a shred of street cred in promising spectators at ''Slanguage" that they can impress teenagers by knowing enough to pronounce ''All right" as ''Ah-iiiight." So rapid is the assimilation of slang in today's media-saturated culture that even old fogies far removed from the inner-urban loop are likely to have heard that one before. But that's just one tiny misstep in a headlong explosion of poetry, percussion, and multi-culti musical exploration that absolutely demands to be seen -- if not for the textual aspect (much of the verbiage comes across contrived rather than inspired), then for the electric, kinetic performances. Mildred Ruiz has the kind of powerhouse contralto voice that can fill stadiums and set nearby bodies to thrumming. Also a captivating orator, she acts out a Seussian tale of two rival gangs who come to realize that the real enemy is not each other, but the culture vultures co-opting, commodifying, and cashing in on their signature styles. (Alliteration, which can be catching, is the central device of the poem that frames the 90-minute set, loosely structured as an imaginary subway ride from Brooklyn to the Bronx.)

The caveat about exploitation is a lesson one wishes that Universes took more to heart, because way too much of the material consists of references and homages to name-brand cultural icons -- LeRoi Jones, ''Langston and Lorca," Sonia Sanchez, Miguel Pinero, Lord Buckley, Allen Ginsberg, Ali . . . These figures do help to create a common language, but the strongest scenes don't need any such reinforcement; they manage to make a visceral connection without the random riffing -- a great deal of which is, in any case, over-amped to the point of unintelligibility. Highlights include Gamal Abdel Chasten as a young black man enthralled with Asian martial arts and getting flak for forsaking his roots. Choreographed to kung fu moves, the monologue is a brilliant example of verbal and physical integration -- plus, it's funny.

Also effective is Ninja, a new member of the company who resembles Jack Black and projects a similar air of barely contained, half-comic menace. Playing a prisoner facing his ''first day on the inside," he assembles a collage of family photos ''to remind me of the me I'm supposed to be," while gearing up to project a tough-guy persona. As for Sapp, he perhaps doesn't allow himself enough solo stage time, beyond emceeing and narrating a Beat rap toward the end. Throughout the show you get glimpses of how instantly he can climb into character -- a junkie nodding out on the subway, say -- but he exudes so much intelligence and vitality that you're left yearning for a deeper, longer look. Director Jo Bonney, who has helped to shape the solo shows of her husband, performance artist Eric Bogosian, is credited with having channeled the diverse talents of the Universes principals into a cohesive show. They've got a salable entity now that travels and translates well. Several of the members are so outstanding, though, that one can't help wishing them ever broader avenues of expression.

The Boston-Bay State Banner on Slanguage

‘Slanguage’ offers insightful vignettes

by Bob Nesti

They may not appear to have much in common — one, after all, is a 400-year-old Shakespeare tragedy, while the other is a plotless entertainment so original as to push the envelope of what theater can be; but think again. “Hamlet,” as presented by the Commonwealth Shakespeare Company on the Common, offers a startlingly modern twist on this Medieval tale of revenge; while “Slanguage,” at the BCA, the New York performance group Universes — with their dazzling display of linguistic fireworks — make Def Poetry Jam seem like a meeting of the Dead Poet’s Society.

Not surprisingly Universes comes to town under the auspices of Company One, the socially conscious theater company that has presented the plays of Stephen Adly Guirgis (most memorably their Elliot Norton Award- winning “Jesus Hopped the A-Train?” and “Den of Thieves”) and the recent premiere of Boston playwright Kirsten Greenidge’s “One Hundred and Three Within the Veil.”

As its title suggests, “Slanguage” offers an amalgam of styles — 50’s doo-wop, 90’s hip-hop, jazz, poetry slam, salsa, gospel — that converge in a dazzling display of verbal virtuosity. While the material has the raw, anxious beat of urban life, the style is as sophisticated as a Bach fugue. That might seem an odd analogy, but the genius of Universes comes with their precise, musical delivery. “Slanguage” is as much about the power of musical expression as it is about the words themselves.

The loose premise has the quintet riding an express train from Brooklyn to the Bronx; en route they pause to tell stories and anecdotes, many drawn from their own experiences living in New York City, that burst with fresh insights. One of the best bits chronicles a battle between street gangs told in the manner of a Dr. Seuss story. In another bit the influence of kung-fu giant Bruce Lee is celebrated; and, as something of an anchor point, the A-B- C’s of “Slanguage” are brilliantly expressed in verse in a tongue-twisting manner by the multi-talented Steven Sapp, one of the group’s co-founders who acts as their leader.

Collectively and individually, the members of the group shine throughout. Mildred Ruiz, another of the group’s co- founders, is something of their “Earth Mother,” rooting their energy with her booming vocal expression. Gamal Abdel-Chasten has a street-smart charm while Ninja supplies some rich vocal support as does newcomer Denise De La Cruz.

As shaped and staged by Jo Bonney, the stories flow with seamless skills, as do the cleverly interpolated musical interludes where pop songs are sampled to clever effect. Their take on the ‘50s hit “Rockin’ Robin” is especially funny. With “Slanguage” Universes bring the poetry slam into the 21st century.

Chicago Sun-Times on Slanguage

Universes riffs on words to illuminate the worlds of these
language artists


October 12, 2004

BY HEDY WEISS Theater Critic

As the five polymorphously prodigious linguists who comprise the cast of "Slanguage" told their audience early in their performance at the Museum of Contemporary Art Theatre this past weekend: "We don't gang bang, we bang slang." They were underselling themselves by at least a light-year's worth of lexicons. For what these brilliant wordsmiths really do -- and do with the kind of verbal and musical facility old Bill Shakespeare engaged in when modern English itself was in its earliest stages of development -- is nothing short of reinventing the multiplicity of mother tongues in which they negotiate their world on a daily basis.

Just consider the heady mix of dictionaries that feed them: English, Spanish, Spanglish, ebonics, Fifties hipster-speak, Nineties hip-hop jargon, television mind-muddling, jazz riffs, rock remix, salsa spin, sidewalk salesmanship and subway mantras. And that's just the tip of the very proverbial iceberg. In fact, Universes (the name by which this troupe of oral artists orbits) has compiled its own new millennium edition of words and phrases, rhythms and derivations. And they have turned it into a piece of riveting, thought-provoking theater. In the process, they've also left their cliche-ridden cousins of "Russell Simmons' Def Jam Poetry" looking like so many copywriters for cereal boxes. Directed, developed and shaped with an uncanny musical rightness by Jo Bonney (who just happens to be married to Eric Bogosian, an actor and writer who has long had his ear tuned to an alternative radio dial), "Slanguage" creates so many hot spots that it's difficult to catalog them all. But if you start with King Pleasure (that enchanting vocalese master of the 1950s who set familiar tunes on their head with jazzy words) and make your way through Cole Porter (with the beat, beat, beat of the tom- tom in "Night and Day") and add nursery rhymes, urban jump-rope chants, English as a Second Language exercises, subway conductors' warnings, church sermons, the enticements of three- card monte players, the laws of Bruce Lee's martial arts, the promises of a pimp named Mr. McDollar and the now-dimmed poetics of Muhammad Ali, you're on track. Of course, you've got to add "the language of Langston [as in Hughes] and Lorca" and the Noo Yorican poets' society, too. And that's just for starters.

Maybe, these jangled harmonizers (who seem capable of layering far more than five lines of thought and rhythm at any given moment) suggest, there has been "too much ado about this microphone minstrel movement," too much attention paid to the "verbal vandals from the underground university." But in suggesting this, they are simply pulling your leg, or rattling your satellite dish. There is tremendous substance here, as well as prodigious syllable-izing and bravura ventriloquizing. And as you hop the subway with these multi-culti troubadours for a journey through New York that runs from Greenwich Village to Harlem, and then on to the Grand Concourse in the Bronx (where at least some of these artists came of age before moving on to college and careers in theater), you are reminded of the grand global gumbo that is our language now. The performers, all charismatic in their particular way and yet in perfect synchrony, included three of the show's original five writers: Steven Sapp, an altogether mesmerizing actor, Gamal Chasten, who does a remarkable Miles Davis-like verbal riff, and Mildred Ruiz, with a volcanic singing voice but somewhat screechy speaking voice. Joining them were Marlyn Matias (as the whirlwind Latina) and Ninja (as the prison poet). Arriving in Chicago this weekend just days after the death of Jacques Derrida, the granddaddy of linguistic deconstruction (which one headline writer called "the man who could take the world apart"), these "Slanguage" masters demonstrated that high-minded theory begins at the token booth.

One final note: Attendance at the three Museum of Contemporary Art performances of the show was not what it should have been. The production needs a different venue and hipper marketing. Had it been staged at one of the city colleges, or at the University of Illinois at Chicago, or at the Riviera in Uptown or HotHouse, audiences would have come in droves. Of course it's not too late to bring it back. The museum should be praised for having had the original vision, as it often does; now it's time to make the turnstiles spin.

Copyright © The Sun-Times Company
All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.
Copyright © 2004, Chicago Tribune

The Courier-Journal on Slanguage

Bridge-building 'Slanguage' educates as it entertains

By Judith Egerton September 17, 2004
The Courier-Journal

"Get ready for a little grease and a little ghetto" and "see how much we respect the First Amendment," say the actors in "Slanguage" as they embark on 100 minutes of uncensored poetry, patois and percussion mixed with jazz and hip- hop-influenced music. "Slanguage," at Actors Theatre of Louisville, isn't a play; it's a collaborative performance by five members of the New York-based troupe Universes, which evolved from the city's urban poetry scene and the Nuyorican Poet's Cafe. The show is a collage of scenes with wordplay and songs aimed at bridging racial and generational gaps. The idea is that the audience is traveling along with the performers as they ride the Uptown No. 2 subway train from Brooklyn to the Bronx. Along the way, there are stops for a variety of verbal duels, humorous monologues and riffs on cultural influences, including a sparring, shadow-boxing homage to Louisville's own poet-prizefighter, Muhammad Ali. If you close your eyes, the mix of sounds and music created by the actors' voices, hands and feet sounds just like the cacophonous streets of New York.

Grown-ups who have never heard of Kool Keith or KRS-1 (definition: old school rappers) get tips on how to communicate with their hip-hop-loving offspring from Steven Sapp, founding member of Universes and a man so slick-tongued he can reel off a complicated string of A-to-Z alliterative poetry without tripping over a single word. For A: "This is another autobiography from at-risk agitators, assaulting and assembling articulation and alliteration ... " For B: "Big-head bowlegged B-Boy brothers, build in front of Boogie Down Bronx Bodegas, bragging 'bout Bambaataa's blessings, and the beats of Bobbito the barber, while Brooklyn bohemians break bread at breakfast, rebirthing boilerplate blues." Try saying that really fast. Or better yet, take Sapp's advice. Say "A yo" to your teen or answer "Aiiiight" when he or she greets you.

Slang offers a common ground between young and old, urban and rural, white and ethnic. "Slanguage" makes the cast's verbal art — and the cast members themselves — visible to audiences who typically would not see or hear them. And that's a good thing. Besides Sapp, the "Slanguage" cast includes the bluesy-throated Mildred Ruiz, the physically dynamic Gamal Abdel Chasten, the comedic Marlyn Matias and Ninja, who perfectly captures the disembodied voice of a subway conductor. The show's energy and appeal stem partly from its contrasts: from discordant to harmonic, from angry to playful, from destructive to instructive.

The show, directed and developed by Jo Bonney, features sound designed by Darron L. West, an Elizabethtown, Ky., native who directed "Kid-Simple" at this year's Humana Festival of New American Plays. Hip-hop music is something I listen to only when I'm a passenger in my son's car or driving next to someone who is blasting it to the world at large. For those of us unschooled in hip-hop, "Slanguage" is a welcome introduction to that cultural experience. But it's more than that. It's a fast-talking fusion of gospel, Spanish bolero tunes, pop, rap, poetry, jazz and hip-hop — a quick- witted, multicultural slice of the big city where it was born.

Next performances: 7:30 p.m. today,
2:30 and 7:30 p.m. tomorrow and
2:30 and 7 p.m. Sunday in the Victor
Jory Theatre at Actors Theatre of
Louisville, 316 W. Main St. Through
Sept. 26. (502) 584-1205.

BACKSTAGE West on Slanguage



Southern CA May 12, 2004


Reviewed By Travis Michael Holder

It may be impossible to reinvent the wheel, but one of the true glories of art is that reinvention is constantly possible. With homage paid to Kerouac, Baldwin, Lorca, Langston Hughes, and other brave wordsmiths vehemently unfettered by rules and restrictions, the New York street artists known collectively as Universes (creators Mildred Ruiz, Steven Sapp, Gamal Abdel Chasten, Flaco Navaja, and Lemon; performers Ruiz, Sapp, Chasten, Dominic Colon, and Ninja) turn the King's English upside down, redefining theatre, redefining musicals, wielding words like weapons as they fiercely insist "there ain't no artistic affirmative action here."

After seeing them in performance, Taper Too's Director of New Play Development Luis Alfaro made it his mission to bring these Afro-Latino-hip-
hoppin' voices to Los Angeles and, thankfully for our culturally thirsty community, he finally convinced the right people to produce. We are treated to an amazing verbal assault of crossbred mongrel languages that define a new age. As rough and gritty as Slanguage is, the foundation is respect for the wonder of words, and the result is hardcore street slang in iambic pentameter bred from a place where "every block's got a rhythm all its own and your walk's gotta shout it loud and clear."

Ruiz, with a voice blending the earthy fogginess of Etta James and the battered soul of Joplin, is a first generation Puerto Rican "trying not to get lost in translation." She wryly recalls the difficulties of not only learning English but also passing Spanish 101. "See, Spanish comes from Spain," she says, "and I speak a different flavor." Sapp is riveting in an angry standup routine, "told like an artist from the projects like J.J.
from Good Times," eloquently revealing his belief that you can't be a poet if you can't read someone else's poetry without getting a tear in your eye and admitting "you don't know shit." Chasten is physical eloquence doing graceful Bruce Lee moves, ready to fight any call to go back to Africa by standing up for his "100 percent Cherokee" roots that go back for centuries. Colon is a modern inner-city Genet as he talks about
starting a poem his first day in prison to remind himself of "the me that was supposed to be me" and is also hilarious in a turn with Ninja as two homies sitting on a front stoop dissing a stranger who has made the unfortunate decision to step onto their turf.

Snapped together by savvy director Jo Bonney on Yael Pardess' simple but effective set that allows for striking projections of bleak city landscapes, Slanguage is without a doubt theatre to test new boundaries and break new rules, drunk with the dreams of a vibrant and viable new generation of artists.

" Slanguage "

presented by the Center
Theatre Group/Mark
Taper Forum's Taper Too
at the Ivy Substation,
9070 Venice Blvd., Culver
City. Tue. -Thu. 8 p.m.,
Fri. & Sat. 7 & 10 p.m.
Sun. 8 p.m. May 2-23.
$12-30. (213) 628-2772.

Daily Breeze (CA) on Slanguage

Review: 'Slanguage' speaks to raw, vibrant language of theater


By Jeff Favre

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

It's clear that any play with a program that includes a "hip-hop to English" glossary is going to feel a little foreign to anyone who doesn't enter already knowing what "bling-bling" or "aaight" means. Universes, a New York-based company that combines poetry, song and theater, openly courts younger nontheatergoers who use such words, which can be heard on rap records and city street corners.

That fact might frighten older or more conservative audiences from attending the ensemble's 90-minute piece, "Slanguage," at the Ivy Subststation in Culver City. But they would be missing an intelligent, uncompromising, vibrant experience of creativity in its rawest sense.

Universes, under the direction of Jo Bonney, weaves a musical, lyrical pastiche of New York life, in particular for Latinos and blacks.

For this West Coast premiere, three of the company's five original members (Steven Sapp, Mildred Ruiz and Gamal Abdel Chasten) have joined with Dominic Colon and Ninja to perform more than 30 vignettes, accompanied only by a few sound effects, the percussion of hand against wood boxes, and five distinct and powerful voices. Sapp serves as a de facto leader, urging the audience to shout and cheer as if this was a rap concert or a poetry slam. His "Alliteration," a poem that exploits the poetic device for each letter of the alphabet, sets a blistering pace
that is maintained for much of the show. His inclusion of dozens of images -- from Jesus to rapper Tupac -- into each stanza shows a remarkable grasp of history and sociology. And his phrasing and tempo turn the spoken word into jazz, much like the best of the beat poets.

Each scene is a snapshot of New York. There are "Uptown Train #2" sections, in which we hear a vocal collage of vendors, beggars, conductors and others riding the subway. We learn about the importance of the right "walk" needed to fit into your neighborhood. There's an ode to boxer/poet Muhammad Ali, and even a hip-hop spoof on Dr. Seuss.

Universes doesn't shy away from keeping it real, which includes a healthy dose of swearing. There are references to murders, child abuse and other atrocities. But the group also shows, without preaching and with a healthy dose of humor, that anyone can use creativity and education to turn negatives into positives.

Ruiz, the lone female, has a remarkably soulful voice. Chasten's comic timing is impeccable. Ninja can turn himself into a human beat box and Colon displays an intensity that is palpable. Together, their talents merge into one force that few Los Angeles performances have equaled in the last few seasons.

Theater companies often claim they are trying to expand the age and cultural background of their audiences, but Universes is paying more than lip service to that mission. With "Slanguage" the company has proved that the same concepts can connect with a teenager from South Central Los Angeles and a middle-age suburbanite from Manhattan Beach, as long as it's honest and well-crafted.

And it's exciting to see a diverse audience share this experience.

Jeff Favre is a freelance entertainment writer based in Los Angeles.

Variety on Slanguage



(Ivy Substation, Los Angeles; 99 seats; $30 top)

Posted: Mon., May 10, 2004, 5:55pm PT

A Center Theater Group/Mark Taper Forum Taper, Too, presentation, in association with the New York Theater
Workshop, of a performance piece in one act by Universes (Mildred Ruiz, Steven Sapp, Gamal Abdel Chasten, Flaco
Navaja and Lemon), developed and directed by Jo Bonney.

Performers: Mildred Ruiz, Steven Sapp, Gamal Abdel Chasten, Dominic Colon, Ninja.


The well-honed individual talents of five New York-based spoken-word virtuosos have been molded by helmer Jo Bonney into a seamless, undulating force of razor-edged, big-city social commentary. Performing as the collective Universes, performance artists Mildred Ruiz, Steven Sapp, Gamal Abdel Chasten, Flaco Navaja and Lemon burst onto the Gotham scene in 2001 at New York Theater Workshop. For this local preem, under the auspices of the Center Theater Group's visionary Taper, Too, Navaja and Lemon have been replaced by word conjurers Dominic Colon and Ninja, but the group has lost none of its infectious, cohesive energy.

Underscored and enhanced by the integrated production design of Yael Pardess (sets/projections), Christopher Akerlind (lights) and Darron L. West (sounds), "Slanguage" is an audiovisual collage of words, movement, music and rhythm that impresses with its originality and unity of execution.

The group's musical sophistication is especially surprising. Blasting through the fractured syntax of New York urban culture, the quintet exhibits the melodic veracity of a seasoned doo-wop groupand the contrapuntal percussion of an adroit rhythm section.

The throughline of "Slanguage" is a surrealistic subway ride that begins in Brooklyn and makes its way to the Bronx. Along the way, the ensemble darts in and out of alleyways of sight and sound, layering and overlapping their verbal jousts and philosophical, street-smart observations. The production is imbued with references to the myriad influences that have invaded their psyches, from kung-fu movies to Beat poets to Dr. Seuss.

As well as they meld together as an ensemble, each of the five also stands out as an individual artist. Co-founding member Ruiz is the earth mother of the group. Her womanly, no-nonsense presence offers a staunch stability to the often macho preening of her male counterparts. Ruiz's full-throttled vocals also supply the musical foundation for the others to build on, as showcased to memorable effect when the ensemble rips through a unique rendition of "Rockin' Robin" that celebrates the wonders of sexual self-gratification.

Sapp, the elder statesman of the group, acts as emcee, leading and instructing the audience in the correct manner of appreciating the group's offerings. A soulful manipulator of "freelance figure of speech," Sapp exudes a captivating presence in his solo turn on "Original Beat," celebrating such word liberators of the past as Jack Kerouac, Lenny Bruce, Allen Ginsberg and Amiri Baraka.

Chasten moves about the stage with a physical grace that's captivating on its own. His tribute to Bruce Lee is a beautifully executed amalgam of word imagery and ballet-like martial arts movement.

The newest members of the ensemble, Colon and Ninja, evoke a pulsating Latino presence within the group. They lead the ensemble into a joyful examination of "Nuyoricanism" with all its linguistic variations. The ensemble offers a hilarious but telling re-creation of a bilingual education class where the children are linguistically and culturally torn asunder. In solo turns, Ninja offers a hilarious confrontation between two gangs waging a "war of slang"; Colon is memorable as he conjures up the image of life-stifling confinement "within the joint," where the only solace is the occasional "cooling breeze" from the free world.

As a fitting summary to the evening, Sapp describes the efforts of Universes as "another autobiography from at-risk agitators, assaulting and assembling articulation and alliteration, from Allah to 'Amos 'n' Andy.' "

Sets and projections, Yael Pardess; lights, Christopher Akerlind; sounds, Darron L. West. Opened and reviewed May 7,
2004; runs through May 23. Running time: 90 MIN.

© 2004 Reed Business Information © 2004 Variety, Inc.
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Los Angeles Times on Slanguage

"all in the delivery"

By F. Kathleen Foley
May 08, 2004

'Slanguage' performers are fierce, funny and bitingly intelligent in the presentation by Taper, Too.

How do you dramatize the urban experience -- the thrumming subway, the cacophonous congestion, the suppressed violence triggered by the wrong clothing, wrong stance, wrong glance?

Leave it to Universes, poets of color with a distinctly New York sensibility whose stated objective is no less than "recreating the King's English" through a mix of movement, music and inner-city slang. In "Slanguage," now being presented by Taper, Too at the Ivy Substation, the performers not only re-create the language, they slap it around, stand it on its head, shake it up and wake it up. Call this "Stomp" for the larynx.

Seen in a fledgling version at the Mark Taper Forum's New Work Festival four years ago, the play opened to stellar reviews at the New York Theatre Workshop in 2001. Founding members Mildred Ruiz, Steven Sapp and Gamal Abdel Chasten are featured in the Taper, Too production, as well as newer Universe members Dominic Colon and Ninja. (Core members Flaco Navaja and Lemon are currently pursuing solo careers.)

Director and co-developer Jo Bonney has been with the group from an early juncture. Her dizzying, propulsive staging for the Taper, Too production is nothing short of virtuosic. Yael Pardess' stark scenic design consists primarily of an upstage screen against which vivid, often blurred images of city life are projected. Darron L. West's sound design and Christopher Akerlind's lighting are integral yet unobtrusive.

It's the performers -- fierce, funny and bitingly intelligent -- who keep your toes tapping and your heart in your mouth. All are prodigiously versatile, handling the demands of the piece -- from dance to song to sound effects to tongue-twisting patter monologues -- with consummate professionalism and aplomb.

Those who have previously dismissed rap and hip-hop as bastardized and anti-intellectual will find "Slanguage" a captivating glimpse of a much-maligned movement. These eloquent practitioners confirm that modern poetry, so sadly marginalized in recent decades, can still resonate in our contemporary culture.

Where: Ivy Substation, 9070 Venice Blvd., Culver City
When: Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays, 8 p.m.; Fridays-Saturdays, 7 and 10 p.m.
Ends: May 23
Price: $25-$30
Contact: (213) 628-2772
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes

Anchorage Daily News on Slanguage

Poetic pyrotechnics drive intense urban tour
REVIEW: Universes' style as electric as the third rail.


Daily News theater reviewer
(Published: March 13, 2004)

"Slanguage" transcends the boundaries of its origins. Performed by Universes, an ensemble of five, the show presents an exciting free romp through a lexicon of urban expression that twists and turns and zooms us along on a lightning-paced journey into the soul of its poet creators.

From the moment the group took the stage at Out North Contemporary Art House on Thursday night, the audience was bewitched by a rhythmic pulse and expressive vitality that didn't quit until the show's screeching conclusion. Using music, dance, songs and the percussive qualities of the two black boxes that comprised their set, the group intensely physicalized their poetic pyrotechnics, seeming to leave few linguistic stones unturned.

With an unremitting athletic urgency, the performers ripped through a kaleidoscopic tour of urban street language as it was, is and might be. The show's structure is a cross between Dante's "Divine Comedy" and a sketch comedy cabaret revue, seamlessly morphing from section to section with each part focusing on another aspect of ghetto life, where every block has a different rhythm. As the players take us on a subway ride from Brooklyn to Harlem and finally to the South Bronx, the birthplace of the global sensibility known as hip-hop, we encounter the highs and lows of life in the Big Apple, from the beat poetry clubs of the Lower East Side to the Spanglish stoops uptown.

It's a wild, rattling ride, spilling over with humor, passion, insight and political awareness, with the occasional shuttle to pathos, lest we forget that ghetto life ain't all fun and games. Using formidable powers of poetic persuasion, the quintet slams together a variety of ingenious parodies, fusing fairy tales, television news and classical literature into their collective crazy quilt, brimming with pop references, fierce wordplay and the unexpected zigzags of the urban experience.

Playing off a dense cultural collage with heroic models such as Lord Buckley, Richard Pryor, Melle Mel and Muhammad Ali, the ensemble invokes the inspirational sign posts that led the way toward their artistic realization. One section, a send up of Dr. Seusses' "Sneeches," described a legendary battle between "Willie Bobos" and "Willie What the Dealies,'' representing a verbal showdown between the old and new styles of jive expression. Another outstanding section featured an extended meditation on the significance of Bruce Lee's kung fu impact on the culture. Gamal Abdel Chasten explained the shift from the common methods of self-defense to the benefits of a more Zen-based approach, all the while demonstrating his impressive martial arts movements. As with so much of the material that preceded it, the piece was funny, incisive and theatrically compelling.

"Slanguage," impeccably directed by Jo Bonny with an incredibly detailed and nuanced sound design, is a powerful and entertaining work that defies comparison and includes some of the best spoken- word performance I have seen. If you like words and the magical sparks they can make when slammed together just right, don't miss this show.

Houston Chronicle on Slanguage

Houston Chronicle

Jan. 17, 2003, 10:12PM

'Slanguage' speaks of urban experience
Copyright 2003 Houston Chronicle

Wearing its streetwise spirit like a badge of honor, Slanguage assembles poetry, song and movement into a theatrical collage depicting the contemporary urban landscape. From subway trains to tenement crime scenes, the locales are conjured with immediacy and authenticity. The Bronx-born troupe Universes created and performs the show, making its Texas debut through tonight at DiverseWorks.

Slanguage has much in common with Russell Simmons' Def Poetry Jam, the showcase of hip-hop performance poets currently on Broadway. Indeed, Lemon, one of the five core Universes members who created Slanguage, is not performing the show here because he's on Broadway in Def Poetry Jam. Indio Melendez has stepped in for this tour, joining co-creators Steven Sapp, Mildred Ruiz, Gamal-Abdel Chasten and Flaco Navaja.

In solo turns or the more frequent joint endeavors, each participant contributes mightily to this ingenious, high-energy performance. Fresh and frank, displaying plenty of attitude, Slanguage is invigorating. In contrast to the wide-ranging material of Def Poetry Jam, Slanguage casts a narrower net, focusing on a particular aspect of urban experience. Yet like the cast of Def Poetry Jam, the Slanguage team revels in language. They are eager to stake their claim to a tradition that extends from John Milton to John Keats to Langston Hughes (among the many poets mentioned), but with their own stamp and style. One sequence refers to Edgar Allan Poe's The Raven, while the style of Dr. Seuss is (sporadically) evoked in a rhymed tale about rival gangs. The joy of wordplay can come in sly substitutions, as in a line referring to the quintet's a capella singing as "Acapulco singing." More prominent is Sapp's solo "alphabet" of alliterative phrases, spanning A to Z with such lines as"grateful for this ghetto gift of gab." A later scene is specifically a paean to beat poets and their legacy.

One scene creates a vivid picture of a subway train in motion, using onomatopoeic words, the slapping or stomping sounds of the performers and the addition of sound effects and flashing lights. The scene typifies director Jo Bonney's simple but effective staging. Another highlight is a round of fairy tales and nursery rhymes, retold in modern urban terms. "Humpty was a brother who fell off 'cause he put himself above everybody else. ... " "Mother Goose was a single mother with nine kids. ... " "Cindy didn't put out on the first date. ... "

The final scenes are especially strong, beginning with a subway song about the "million different stories on the train," followed by scenes of domestic violence and the plague of urban indifference, neighbors striving to remain uninvolved. Overall, Slanguage could be better shaped and structured. There are spots where the writing of individual sequences could be sharpened, the delivery clarified (some parts are lost in the whirl of sound effects and overlapping voices). Some of the show's best moments and ideas are not fully exploited. For instance, the nursery tales and the "stories on the train" song could profitably be extended and further developed. These sequences are so good one wants more of them before the cast moves to the next piece. Nonetheless, when the show connects, which is pretty frequently, it speaks a potent Slanguage everyone can understand.

When: 8 tonight
Where: DiverseWorks, 1117 East Freeway
Tickets: $20; 713-335-3445

El Diario

Pasted Graphic

The New York Times on Slanguage

THEATER REVIEW; The City's Beat, With an Iambic Heat


By LAWRENCE VAN GELDER Published: July 28, 2001, Saturday

Anyone who habitually enfolds New York in a loving embrace -- not just its Gold Coast and its midwinter galas but its pockets of poverty and its packed and pounding subways in midsummer rush hours -- is likely to warm to the exuberant, insightful entertainment titled ''Slanguage.''

Here, out of the mouths and clapping hands and dancing feet of five multitalented performers known collectively as Universes, comes the poetry of the city, minted in the urban furnace where the flint of real life strikes the sparks of creation from concrete pavement and steel tracks.
Expressed in rap and riffs and gospel and bluesy laments, among other poetic forms, this intermissionless, roughly 95-minute roller coaster of rhythm at New York Theater Workshop takes the listener by the ear. The show travels from the underground rattlers, where the beggar, the battery seller and the religious rile the riders; to the streets, where walking is attitude; and to the tenements, where domestic disputes leave babies dead.

But God is here, too, and Ali and Jack Kerouac and the great Puerto Rican migration and Dr. Seuss; so along with the politics of dislocation and the problems of assimilation and richer and poorer and neighborhoods and classrooms come fun and a feverish joy of language. The program for ''Slanguage'' includes an educational and laughter-inducing glossary. If someone hasn't heard the latest bochinche, or gossip, from someone dressed in a bubblegoose, or puffy down jacket, about some Mumia, or prisoner on death row, it is possible to front, or act as if one has.

Here is the place, as the words of a scene called ''Alphabet City A-Z Cafe'' put it, ''where a variety of verbal vandals' voices evolve the vernacular verbatim.''

Directed and developed by Jo Bonney, whose credits include ''References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot'' and ''Stop Kiss,'' this show, which opened on Monday night, is presented in some 30 swift scenes in which Universes, out of the South Bronx, display their talents solo and in various combinations. These praiseworthy performers include the lyricist and percussionist Gamal Abdel Chasten; the spoken-word aficionado who carries only the name Lemon; Flaco Navaja, a Latino poet; Mildred Ruiz, a noteworthy singer; and Steven Sapp, whose gifts run to poetry, playwriting, acting and directing.

Aided and abetted by the sound design of Darron L. West, the scenic design of Scott Pask, the lighting of James Vermeulen and the evocative projection design of Batwin & Robin Productions, they have created something special, a work of heart and soul that distills the essence of the city.
Written and performed by Universes, Gamal Abdel Chasten, Lemon, Flaco Navaja, Mildred Ruiz and Steven Sapp. Direction and development by Jo Bonney; sets by Scott Pask; lighting by James Vermeulen; sound by Darron L. West; projections design by Batwin & Robin Productions; production stage manager, Katherine Lee Boyer; assistant stage manager, Sharika Niles. Presented by New York Theater Workshop. At 79 East Fourth Street, East Village.

Curtain Up on Slanguage

A CurtainUp Review

by Louisa Whitfield


UNIVERSES Lemon, M. Ruiz, S. Sapp, F. Navaja and G. Chasten (Photo: Joan Marcus)

One can only use the word "eclectic" to describe this unusual piece written and performed by Universes, a group of young artists from the South Bronx. Directed by Jo Bonney (most recently, References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot), Slanguage is the kind of show that will catch you by surprise, snap you to attention and make you unable to suppress a laugh. Slanguage is more like an audio-visual collage than a theatrical piece. The five members of Universes bring together the music, movement and language of their background and playfully invite us in, allowing us to track the evolution of New York urban culture from the nursery rhymes of childhood to adult speech used in the streets. Universes' members are Gamal Abdel Chasten, Lemon, Flaco Navaja, Mildred Ruiz and Steven Sapp. Wearing bold primary colors the five evoke a rainbow of creativity. Chasten and Sapp are strong pillars in the group, keeping rhythm with percussion boxes at times, at others cleverly spitting out hip-hop and jazz infused poetry. Navaja and Lemon are visually softer and slight in frame, yet just as sharp-tongued and witty. Ruiz's powerful voice provides the backdrop of sound, and her tough female presence gives the group its balance. Slanguage evolves beautifully. To begin with we find ourselves on a subway ride that begins in Brooklyn and makes its way towards the Bronx. Along the way we are taken on detours, hilarious monologues and verbal jousting sessions that leave our brains ringing with the profusion of words. We might be told a story, for example, by Lemon, about the "war of slang", in which two local street gangs battle over their styles of language: First, you had the Willys... Famous for doubling up on their words Famous for talkin' that I need a jobby job On the really real But keep it on the lolo. Then you had the Willy What The Dealys From the North... That would end whatever they were saying... With you know what I mean and Ya heard me. We watch the group as they pretend to be children in the street, chanting rhymes and skipping rope, or as characters talking casually on a street corner. Like a lesson in slang, we learn everything from spanglish expressions like bochincheand jibaro to how "the bop walk" evolved. Within Slanguage are references to just about everything that has influenced this culture: Kung-Fu movies and the philosophy of Bruce Lee, the boleros and customs from Puerto Rico, stand-up comedians like Richard Pryor, Mohammed Ali, even Dr. Seuss. As Sapp puts it, "Another autobiography from at-risk agitators, assaulting and assembling articulation and alliteration, from Allah to Amos and Andy." Whether you feel like a true urban American or an absolute alien to this culture,Slanguage is a great experience. With amazingly accurate observation the performers show us what has come out of the mish-mash of cultures in this city's neighbourhoods. Even if you feel tragically disconnected with New York's colloquialisms, have no fear. Universes will attempt to explain it to you. Slanguage is for everyone from "big head bowlegged B-Boy brothers," to "Coons under concrete constellations…who can't even conceive the concept of coolness." (And if you're still stuck, there's a glossary provided in the playbill.)

The Village Voice on Slanguage

Beats and Keats

Universes’ ‘Slanguage’ at NYTW
Alisa Solomon
Tuesday, July 24th 2001


They burst onto the stage promising to "kick your ass tonight!" Stomping on the floor and drumming on a couple of wooden cubes that serve as whatever furniture is needed, the five members of Universes quickly add some sassy reassurance: "But you need not worry about a thang/'Cause up here/We don't gang bang,/We bang slang."

For the 90 energized minutes of Slanguage (NYTW), they deliver on the pledge, channeling the myriad voices of uptown: The "sad junkie/who aint got nothing but the bop." The homeboy "rocking Chinese shoes at a Latin House Party/Playing spoons to disco toons/With a knish in my left hand/And the blues in my heart." The Spanglish-speaking poet "Caught between two worlds/Like a wedgie in a fat ass." Some solo pieces are autobiographical—many speak directly about the discovery of voice through the slam scene, and the most lyrical pieces pay homage to the Beats, to Nuyorican elders like Pedro Pietri, Miguel Piñero, and Miguel Algarín, and to Kipling and Keats, who "Be kicking it with KRS-One and Kool Keith."

Thanks to director Jo Bonney, Slanguage has a forward drive and theatrical texture that earlier Universes shows never quite caught. The material is more compelling, too: While the troupe has always dazzled with its fresh rhymes, varied rhythms, and commitment to keeping it real, the pieces are now more narrative than rhetorical, fueled more by descriptive detail than tough-guy threats. As a result, the five performers—Gamal Abdel Chasten, Lemon, Flaco Navaja, Mildred Ruiz, and Steven Sapp—emerge as distinct, engaging personalities. Once relegated to singing backup for the boys, Ruiz now plays an equal role—still soaring into song from time to time. Some trim movement, a gorgeous set of projections (slightly askew portraits of the nabe by Dona Ann McAdams), and the punctuating sirens, rumbles, and beeps in Darron L. West's sound design truly marry theater to the spoken-word style. But the focus always stays where it should: on the language. Sapp defines the piece best in an early poem: "Our dramatic debut of a discourse on dueling dialogues,/Deconstructed by the drum, the DJ and the dramaturg."

Despite some occasional ironic winks—Ruiz's preacher makes holy inspiration from scatological imagery—Slanguagerepresents a scene more than analyzes it. The misogyny, macho posing, and easy violence are like the weather in this urban landscape: just there. The cheats "who keep copyrights and compensation from crooners under concrete constellations" are, of course, the "constipated conquistadors with the Christ complex," and Momma Goose, a single mother on welfare, "was getting paid by the state to get laid." If only Universes would bust apart such easy received ideas the way they blast like jackhammers through the clichés and cruelties of English.
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