Slanguage Arts

How do you interest a new generation in poetry? You combine it with hip-hop, blues, jazz, theater and politics -- all at the same time. At least that's what the Bronx-based spoken-word collective Universes did in its critically acclaimed show, Slanguage.

Five years ago, Steven Sapp, Mildred Ruiz, Gamal Abdel Chasten, Indio Melendez and Flaco Navaja were performing solo in the same Bronx performance space. But the exciting stuff was happening offstage. The initial ideas for Slanguage started brewing when the poets were hanging out together after the show. "We would rehearse and practice," says Sapp. "We were doing it for fun. Instead of one person reading a poem, then another person reading, we would do our performances together. We really worked on having a routine…It was almost like a band. We would rehearse every night to perform at poetry spots…Everyone would utilize their talents; everyone got a little moment to do their poem. Our name spread from there because we weren't just doing regular poetry readings."

But it wasn't until the group had honed its ideas for two years and hooked up with director Jo Bonney that Slanguage became a finished product. The show opened in New York in July 2001 to reviews that praised its energy and diversity. New York Theatre Experience called it "the unmistakable birth of new art for a new generation."

Sapp counts everyone from Allen Ginsberg to Muhammad Ali to the Eurythmics as the "mentors and wordsmiths" who have influenced the group. "We're first and foremost poets," he explains, calling the show a celebration of "the evolution, the wonder and the joy of language." But they're also none-too-shabby actors and dancers.

Slanguage includes everything from Dr. Seuss riffs to a hip-hop glossary to political discussions about poverty, dislocation and assimilation -- not to mention lots of rhythm. "We stomp. We clap. We do stepping," says Sapp. "It has pentameter, all that stuff. It has a little bit of something for everyone."

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Lee Williams