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—Slanguage represents 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.