Bronx-based ensemble Universes finally brought its potent Ameriville to Houston this weekend, thanks to the city's always-courageous presenter, DiverseWorks Art Space. The unusually emphatic and highly political 90-minute work attempts to capture the American mindset since Hurricane Katrina, branching out from those troubling 2005 events in New Orleans like a hungry rhizome. We'd say the four actor-singer-dancers were preaching to the largely liberal choir at DiverseWorks, but the most beautiful thing about Ameriville is that it doesn't preach at all.
With only two wooden tables, four chairs, and a rich stream of provocative video images, this unique brand of theater deals most directly with facts. Through a skillful blend of hip hop declamation and what might be called "jazz blocking," the audience learns painful truths about the U.S. Every hour there are 25 hate crimes. Forty percent of homeless people have served in the armed forces. Almost half of all Americans do not believe in evolution. This information is sort of sifted for its emotional impact, and we were surprised to leave the theater feeling strangely redeemed. Maybe it was the ironic "funeral for America" at the end. It was as if all this confusion had been exorcised.
Each of the four performers takes on a variety of characters. Golden-voiced Mildred Ruiz is an exploited Spanish-speaking and bolero-singing hotel maid as well as a character who sells Katrina-artifact masks to insensitive tourists. Steven Sapp ruminates about the whereabouts of his mother while visiting a barber shop (in between at least 15 of his other characters). William Ruiz (aka "Ninja") plays a child reading his book-report about God, as well as insidious city planner who cheerfully exclaims, "My job is simply to choke a nigger out." The group hummed "My Favorite Things" while enacting a lynching. Next scene: Every three hours a teenager is killed by a gun. All of this would have been unbearable if it hadn't been delivered with such unconditional compassion. We had the sense that these are the people who truly love America.
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When we spoke to Ninja after the show, he explained how much research had gone into the writing of Ameriville, and expressed his wish that more people would take Universes seriously. A recent work, Slanguage, seemed to force them into the "multicultural slot" in many cities. Ameriville, however, has been favorably received in 25 American cities and on the international circuit, including Romania and several predominantly Muslim countries. The ensemble is planning a new work centered on The Black Panthers and The Young Lords, more American history that will surely manifest as brilliant theater under the watchful eyes of its skillful players.