A Democratization of Verse

Universes Puts the Slang In Slanguage

by Elizabeth Schwyzer

universes.jpgThey’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.

4·1·1

Slanguage at UCSB’s Campbell Hall, on
Tuesday, February 27 at 8 p.m. For tickets, call 893-3535.

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