Universes Puts the Slang In Slanguage
by Elizabeth Schwyzer
They’ve been labeled a black poetry group, a hip-hop theater troupe, and a Latino music ensemble, but according to founding member Steven Sapp, Universes is none of the above. The 10-year-old, five-member theater group intentionally defies categorization. Sapp and fellow Universes member Mildred Ruiz studied theater at Bard College before founding a nonprofit performing arts center in the South Bronx. It was the stuff they did on the side — improvised jams mixing hip-hop with jazz with Spanish boleros, and late-night poetry slams at East Manhattan’s Nuyorican Poets Café — that eventually developed into a performance piece that attracted the attention of Obie Award-winning director Jo Bonney. Part poetry slam, part physical theater production, and part contemporary urban musical, their newest work, Slanguage, blends traditional theater and street culture in a riotous verbal mash-up. “Relax yourselves,” Sapp has been known to tell Slanguage audiences, peppering them with characteristically varied encouragements, from “This is like church,” to “Loosen your blouses.” Sapp spoke about the production from New York City last week.
You call yourselves a poetry/theater ensemble. What do you consider your primary art form? Personally, I’m a poet first, I feel — a poet and a playwright, a director and actor. Those are the things I studied in college. I asked myself, “How am I going to fuse Shakespeare and Brecht and the Beat poets, and how do I make that history and that aesthetic work with the aesthetic of the South Bronx: the joy of guys talking junk in the barbershop or the beauty of Muhammad Ali speaking? How do we make that material as theatrically interesting as Shakespeare or Brecht?”
What would you say you’ve achieved with Slanguage? We started organically, just trying to have fun. It got bigger and bigger, and the next we knew, we were off Broadway with big directors like Jo Bonney in the room. Then when the New York Times reviewed us and said we were theater, suddenly we were theater.
In terms of our audiences, I think the younger generation has seen us do things they didn’t even know you could do with language and theater, and older audiences have learned to appreciate how we were flipping and turning language inside out. We’re helping audiences look at urban contemporary artists and see that our work is not very traditional and it is very traditional; we can sit in the room with dramaturges and lighting designers, and we can also go to hip-hop clubs, open-mike nights, prisons, and community centers. I think we have earned a slot in American theater, which has opened the door for a lot of different artists.
How has Jo Bonney’s direction shaped the show? She dramaturged the hell out of it. You would write four pages of work and she’d say she liked one line. She would almost always be right — that one line would be what the piece was supposed to be about. She got us looking at how our work appealed to others. We had to get her to respond — she was our barometer. We were the kings of the underground, but we were trying to translate the work into a predominantly white audience from Connecticut or Yonkers or Queens. There were days when she made suggestions and we disagreed, and then she’d say, “Okay, prove it,” and we’d have to prove it. It was work.
What’s the best part of touring the show? Seeing different people receive it, and meeting so many different people. Most of us had never really traveled extensively before this. Recently, we were in Alaska. At one point we were like, “What the hell are we doing in Alaska?” But it’s beautiful to find common ground. We’re all human beings, and if we take time to listen to each other, it can be a beautiful thing. We can attract a hip-hop crowd, bohemians, collegiates, people who are black, white, older, younger. I see tons of theater, and you don’t see that enough, where there’s something for everyone. That’s the way theater should be.
Slanguage at UCSB’s Campbell Hall, on Tuesday, February 27 at 8 p.m. For tickets, call 893-3535.