Universes’ ‘Ameriville’ looks at fear through lens of Katrina
By Sophia Archibald, The Dartmouth Staff
Published on Wednesday, April 14, 2010
When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, the members of the hip-hop theater group Universes scrapped their current project based on Orson Welles’ “War of the Worlds” in order to use the recent tragedy as a lens for examining both the history and continued presence of fear in the United States, Universes member Steven Sapp said at a post-performance discussion for “Ameriville” — the resulting production that began its two-night run at the Hopkins Center on Tuesday.
“Ameriville” is an incredibly fresh and moving piece that covers a range of current social issues from health care to racism. With the events of Katrina serving as a backdrop, the performance takes a look at the how fear prevents a community from thriving — whether that community is Hanover or the world.
According to William Ruiz, who is one of four performers in the group and goes by the performance name Ninja, “Ameriville” is a response to America’s response to the events of five years ago.
“When you go out into the other neighborhoods and you see the people who actually did get struck by it, their neighborhoods are still gone,” Ruiz said in an interview with The Dartmouth. “The houses are still down, they still don’t have any electricity in some of the schools, they don’t have gas to cook with, and America thinks that that passed and now we’re fine.”
The piece begins with an interpretive reenactment of the disaster, replicating the setting simply with projected images of the sky throughout the storm, and a stage hosting several overturned tables and chairs. This 10-minute introduction includes storytelling, poetry, singing and body percussion.
One of the performers walks around the stage looking for his lost mother. At the end of this first segment, the performers fall to the ground, leaving the audience with only the image of rain on the back wall and the sounds of slow, faint breathing and running water as the lights fade to black. This first scene is an excellent, and effectively eerie, manifestation of the way fear takes over us in times of crisis.
From this point on, “Ameriville” expands beyond the effects of Hurricane Katrina to explore ways that fear is prevalent today and how that fear relates to issues of social and political justice.
Statistics flash across the screen, displaying hard-hitting facts, including how many teenagers die from being shot every hour and the percentage of Americans who do not believe in evolution.
The innovative merging of poetry, music, theater and visuals make the messages of the performance even more powerful. According to Ruiz, this diversity of art forms reflects the diversity of American culture.
“America is not one way of thinking, America is not one way of dancing, it’s not one way of speaking,” Ruiz said. “So put them all up there at once and create American art, and that’s what we do. That’s what America is, it’s a melting pot of all these different cultures and that’s what our style of performance is.”
Despite these differences, members of Universes said they also want to present the United States as one united community, rather than as a several split groups whose divergent customs and beliefs risk perpetuating fear.
“We looked at the United States as a village as opposed to this big huge thing,” Universes member Gamal Chasten said in the interview. “In that village, everybody grows — everybody helps each other out.”
“Our neighborhood is America. We don’t look at our neighborhood as the block or the street corner,” group member Mildred Ruiz-Sapp added later in the interview.
According Ruiz-Sapp, Universes considers people from all 50 states to be its neighbors. Although the group has its roots in New York, it tries to incorporate influences from across the country and the world into its projects.
“The mission of our company is to have conversations and tell stories of all the people that we encounter,” Ruiz-Sapp continued. “That’s bigger than your block, even though our block always comes with us on the journey.”
Ruiz, Ruiz-Sapp, Sapp and Chasten founded the group 13 years ago in the Bronx. According to Ruiz-Sapp, the group began as a purely poetry group, performing in poetry slams in clubs and cafes on Manhattan’s Lower East Side. While other poets would perform solo, the members of Universes always went on stage as a group.
“We started being recognized in the poetry scene because we were doing something different,” Ruiz-Sapp said.
This recognition secured the foursome a spot in the New York Theater Workshop, where they developed their act to become Universes.
As ambassadors of the music of the United States, the members of the group toured many countries in Africa and Europe in January and February of 2008.
“We’ve performed in so many different places and for so many different people from so many walks of life,” Ruiz said. “In general, everybody appreciates the work that we’ve done, whether they can understand our language or not.”
Along with its performances at the Hop, Universes participated in several campus events to encourage student involvement in the arts and social justice — including a panel Monday night titled “Recovering from Disaster: Who Gets Left Behind?” and Sunday night’s Soul Scribes poetry slam, held in FUEL.
With “Ameriville,” Universes brings new perspectives to age-old issues in a way that also manages to poke fun at many of these issues. The group attacks the problems of this country with confidence and humor, and they are not easily inhibited.
“We’re fearless with what we do,” Ruiz-Sapp said.