UNIVERSES (Steven Sapp, Mildred Ruiz-Sapp, William Ruiz — aka Ninja)
“If there is such a thing as public art and private art,
Then the poems are private. They mark the landscape.
They are a record of private moments.
I count them as gifts.”
After creating the ten, decade-by-decade plays chronicling African-American history of the twentieth century (known as the Pittsburgh Cycle or the Century Cycle), August Wilson fully intended to publish a book of the many poems he had been writing throughout his life — those “gifts” he would leave for future generations. Unfortunately only a few of the poems made it to the public eye before his death. However, through a joint project between his widow, Constanza Romero, and members of the New York theatrical group UNIVERSES, many of his poems now become the threads of a world premiere musical. Oregon Shakespeare Festival presents the inaugural staging of UniSon with members of UNIVERSES joining other Festival actors to tell a story gripping, moving, and at times frightening about a deceased poet who returns in the words of his poems to forgive himself and to forgive his life for those private moments left unresolved in his mind and soul.
A young woman who desires to be a writer apprentices herself to an aged poet, pleading with him, “Tell me everything; I need to know everything.” He tells her, “Every time you pick up your pen, your intent better be to write the intentions of the world … to free souls with every letter.”
Before he can impart how that mission can be met, he dies, leaving Asia Mark as the Apprentice distraught as she searches in a soulful song filled with pain and pulsating beats of the heart, “Why Do Men Die?” She is joined by a black-clad funeral party of women in grand Sunday hats and men in suits and umbrellas — all bending, swaying, and rhythmically clapping as they sing the poet’s body “to the end of the highway of life.”
A preacher (Rodney Gardiner) sings his sermon of departure for the dead poet’s soul with phrases of verse sung in waves as his increasingly intense message causes the mourners to dance their emotions in a New Orleans style ballet to the dead. But when those same mourners hear the poet’s last will and testament leaving all his worldly belongings to the Apprentice, their grabby hands, frantic movements, and spasmodically sung “I Want” lead the Apprentice into a fast rap claiming her own inheritance (a rap that unfortunately is delivered in such a way to be totally unintelligible by the audience).
The Apprentice inherits a huge trunk that she opens to find pages of poems not yet read by anyone other than the author. The words on the pages turn into seven ominous figures as they “Rise Up,” emerging from recessed closets and cloaked in black hoods and furs. As the Apprentice watches with both fascination and fear, the poet himself (Steven Sapp) returns from the Beyond to confront one by one these seven memories of his past, noted in the program as “Terrors.” The remembrances he will confront — all documented in the poems we will hear spoken and sung — soon confirm what the poet himself will later say: “With each poem, we step into unknown territory and make dogs howl.”
From each of the personal terrors the Poet took to his death without coming to some final resolution, he learns new information, receives important advice, recalls earlier times — both good and bad. Kevin Kenerly is a Boxer who is light on his feet and pointed in his jabs to a Poet who might or might not be his son, leaving the Poet his truth of “love isn’t alway pretty.” A Seamstress (Christiana Clark) turns back into a girl to sing a soft duet of close harmony with her mother, a resident of a fire-doomed House of the Whores — both of whom have some relationship with the Poet that he must now face. A Butcher (William Ruiz, aka Ninja), who once loved the same woman as the Poet, appears in bloody apron and with a hung pig’s corpse whose entails spill out onto the stage. Mr. Ruiz raps and sings rough, guttural sounds with edges like his meat-cutting knives as he and the Poet reunite.
And on they come, these images from another world that have been locked away on pages of poems in a trunk. Rodney Gardiner (as Black Smith) is a jiving friend in burnt-orange zoot suit and dazzling gold shoes (just a small part of the eye-popping costumes created by Dede M. Ayite) whose incredibly magnetic personality on stage is one of the show’s highlights, especially when he and the Poet dance, rap, and sing together in a duet superb. A particularly dark and scary retelling of Red Riding Hood brings the entire cast together as a fifteen-year-old girl’s story of connection to the Poet’s past is told by Mildred Ruiz-Sapp as The Hunter in a sung voice hauntingly deep, raspy, and extremely compelling.
The Poet’s Momma (Yvette Monique Clark) appears in a performance guaranteed to elicit tearful lumps in audience throats as the snappy, sassy, younger mother alternates with an older mother now fighting Alzheimer's. She reenacts a story involving a white soldier and a black boxer, stepping out on the floor with each to sing “Dance a Waltz and Get Dizzy.” Ms. Clark’s ever-so-smooth, always-so-slight moves of the shoulders and hips, her voice whose notes come straight from the heart, and her looks of adoration on a son now back from the dead (as is she) combine for a Momma to be remembered.
Rounding out the “Terrors” is Jonathan Luke Stevens as the white Soldier whose meeting with the Poet is one of the most poignant moments of the entire show.
Robert O’Hara directs the evolving stories of the Poet’s past in a manner that is at times other-worldly and at other times, of the present moment. Along with Ms. Ayite and her parade of stunning costumes, the creative team he has assembled are themselves stars of the show. Christopher Acebo’s multi-level set design of recessed closets and protruding walls of brick is greatly enhanced by the remarkable projections that illustrate both characters and their stories on the walls and their ten, hung paintings whose images change throughout the show. The lighting design of Kaitlyn Pietras outlines the stage and its steps in ever-changing neon of many colors as well as enhances all the individual stories with lights eery, evocative, and ethereal. Broken Chord’s sound design reverberates within the Agnes Bowmer Theatre with striking clarity — whether in sung notes or stomping feet dancing proud.
The power of UniSon is not only in the reincarnated words of August Wilson that are given new life by the musical story UNIVERSES has created using bits and pieces of the many poems his widow shared with them. The power of this new work is also in reminding the audience members that we each must survey those moments in our lives where we have silent regrets and deeply felt sins that we have not faced fully and that we have not yet forgiven ourselves. Like the poet who “took the pen … connected the words and gave us gifts for all to read,” Oregon Shakespeare Festival and UNIVERSES have given us a gift that will keep on giving in the self-reflections and soul-searching it evokes.
Rating: 4 E
Photo by Jenny Graham