note: entire contents copyright 2011 by Sheila Barth
“Ameriville,” a one-act, multimedia fusion of storytelling, comedy, jazz, gospel and hip-hop that explores humanitarian and American issues, while focusing on Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath, took the Paramount Center’s Mainstage by storm last week. In their Boston premiere with ArtsEmerson, Universes Theater Company, composed of founding members Steven Sapp, Mildred Ruiz-Sapp, Gamal Abdel Chasten, and also William Ruiz (a.k.a. Ninja), incorporate a tribal approach, beating and stomping out rhythms, while singing and chanting a cappella.
Universes tackles heavy issues - racism, poverty, homelessness, illegal immigrants, propaganda, politics, history, education, environmentalism, government, corruption and greed, through comedy and a variety of rhythms.
For 90 minutes, non-stop, they energetically expose America’s ills and weaknesses, ending with an anthemic hope and cry for the future. “Ameriville” is recommended for audiences 14 years old-up. Under director-developer Chay Yew, the quartet hammers out their messages, beatboxing, climbing on chairs or tables, banging out hip-hop, jazz, gospel, at times like an evangelical jubilee. A huge background screen beams images, messages and factoids between numbers.
Sapp and Chasten lighten the load with a comedy routine about businesses exploiting blacks by offering to buy their property at low prices, as the property devalues until it’s almost worthless. Ah, the joys of gentrification.
Ruiz as a little schoolboy reading his essay on God is deliciously surprising. He begins sweetly innocent, saying all the right things, as the screen flashes children’s drawings of people, trees, houses, twittering birds, bright skies. Without warning, his essay takes a startling, parental-inspired, hate-tinged tone against Democrats, gays, and others. Chasten is sardonic as a homeless man who lost everything, calling himself the invisible man whom nobody wants to see, because someday, they could be he.
“Ameriville” was originally performed in 2009, so Ruiz-Sapp’s take on Latina women’s suppression loses clout, given famous Latina performers, along with Sonia Sotomayor’s appointment as a US Supreme Court justice in 2009, and several Massachusetts Latina women, who hold important political positions.
However, Sapp-Ruiz’s bombastic delivery, tempered with flamenco staccato, is fantastic. She delivers a power-packed punch as a reviled Latina female soldier who left her home and family to join the military and fight for freedom, only to have her husband, baby son - everything - lost in Katrina.
While “Ameriville” is clever, catchy, and creative, there’s one drawback. Many theatergoers complained they couldn’t understand the performers at times, because of their contrived New Orleans accents.(They’re all New Yorkers).
However, “Ameriville” is a strong statement about this generation’s fear and hope for the future, a clarion call for help to ensure America’s (and the world’s) resources and vision of freedom and justice for all.