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.
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’…..how 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.
Directed by Chay Yew
Produced by Universes Theater Company, Inc.
Reviewed by Ben Demers
Ameriville runs thru Nov 7, 2010 at Round House Theatre, 4545 East-West Highway, Bethesda, MD
- Jolene Munch Cardoza . Washington Examiner
- Tom Avila . MetroWeekly
Susan Berlin . Talkin’ Broadway
- Nelson Pressley . Washington Post