Gazing Into the Universes

The rhythmic build is still too fast. Sitting in rehearsal with the concentrated look of a music producer, director Jo Bonney asks her actors to go through the scene one more time. Steve Sapp and Gamal Chasten, two writer-perform ers with long dreads, pick up their microphones and launch into their spoken-word dialogue about macho survival in the hood. In the back ground, Flaco Navaja and Lemon—two Puerto Rican poets in their twenties—provide percussive underscoring, clapping their hands and stomping their feet. Midway through, Mildred Ruiz-Sapp comes in with her lush bluesy voice singing about the beat, beat, beat of a passing train—a riff on one of Sapp's lines. On the fourth take Bonney nods her head: The execution needs more work, but the new tempo is obviously music to her ears.

The five members of Universes care as much about how their latest piece sounds as what it says. That's why they've hooked up with Bonney, the Obie-winning director whose collaborations with Eric Bogosian and Danny Hoch have demonstrated a sharp understanding of the jazz and hip-hop cadences of oral storytelling. One of her major challenges on U, the Universes' workshop production opening Thursday for a two-week run at P.S. 122, has been to help the group find a coherent theatrical structure for their autobiographical urban lyricism.

Though everyone in the cast grew up in New York City housing projects, their sensibilities are as diverse as their ethnic and educational backgrounds. Artistically, how-ever, they all came of age in the current thriving spoken-word scene. "We're first and foremost poets," explains Lemon, a watchful young man, whose reputation for coining wicked haikus has earned him the right to go by a single name. But their influences, which include Samuel Beckett and Dael Orlandersmith, suggest an equally strong dramatic bent.

Director Jo Bonney (left) rehearses the universes: "We're first and foremost poets," says lemon.
photo: Dona Ann McAdams
Director Jo Bonney (left) rehearses the universes: "We're first and foremost poets," says lemon.

Poverty, racism, drugs, street violence—the show's subject matter intimately captures the sense of inner-city struggle. Humor and emotional truth, however, take precedence over political messages. The company simply has too much comic style to be sanctimonious. "Surrounded by hard times/We grew up livin' offa givin' our people hard times," Lemon be gins, unselfrighteously. Fairy tales are given a ghetto spin (Humpty-Dumpty is an old "crack head"). And as for regrets, Sapp lets his own verse memorably sum up the collective sentiment: "So we learn to bite the hand that feeds us/'Cause it never feeds us/Enough."

For the past six months, Bonney has been helping the group shape the material in a way that simultaneously exploits their theatrical and musical gifts. Each of the scenes now revolves around a beat, a sampling of tunes, or a song hook. "All of them have a very sophisticated sense of verbal rhythm," says Bonney. "When they're introduced to Lord Buckley's hip- se mantic jazz riffs or Kerouac's Beat poetry, they understand the work immediately as a kind of score. What we've been trying to uncover is the Universes' common language rhythms."

In addition to serving as a dramaturge, Bonney has been encouraging her cast to think of themselves as a bona fide theatrical ensemble. "In the past we operated in a revue for mat," says Navaja. "We'd all be on stage at the same time, but it was more a series of individual performances." Another mark of Bonney's influence is the new role of Ruiz-Sapp, who previously had been just a singer with the company. "Jo made me question what it meant for the only woman in Universes to remain silent." The two worked on finding a literary style to match a vocal one that owes as much to the gospel of Mahalia Jackson as it does to the flamenco of Lola Flores.

The cast keeps emphasizing that what they're about to present is merely a work-in-progress—a product of a one-week developmental stint at Dartmouth with New York Theater Workshop last summer and some patched-together time snagged from their hectic day jobs. After the run at P.S. 122, they'll head out to the Mark Taper Forum in L.A. to continue expanding the piece, with the hope of a New York opening sometime in the spring. For now their allotted four hours of rehearsal space is officially up. Amazed at how quickly the after noon went, Navaja leads the others in asking, "Can't we stay until they kick us out?"

 
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