The foot stomping and harmonizing quartet, Universes, took theatergoers on a wild ride through some of the nation’s most daunting social ills in “Ameriville” last week at the Paramount Theatre.
Presented by ArtsEmerson, Universes, comprised of Mildred Ruiz-Sapp, William “Ninja’’ Ruiz, Gamal Abdel Chasten and Steven Sapp, started off the show gaily singing renditions of popular American songs such as “Papa was a Rolling Stone,” “Buffalo Soldier” and “Rolling on a River.”
Suddenly, they thrust the audience into a much darker place.
The play uses FEMA’s slow response to hurricane Katrina as a lens through which to view issues of race, being poor in America, homosexuality and religion. They sing, “right there was a house” and point out where houses stood prior to Katrina and give snapshots of the people who lived there.
One story is about a young man who remembers watching his father getting ready for Mardi Gras. His recalls his daddy dancing in full regalia with feathers flowing and how magical it all was. But after the storm his happy memories are as muddied as what’s left of his old house.
Another poignant tale was about an old man who wakes up every night at 11:11p.m. unable to find rest since the storm tore apart the city. Images of large clocks behind him spin out of control. He tells the crowd that with all the bodies and stagnant water, “it smells worse than regular death.”
Universes begs audiences to look a little closer at the things that separate us. Ruiz-Sapp shined when she sang the song of a poor immigrant mother who works two jobs to provide for her family. She works and works, but doesn’t seem to be getting anywhere. “Is this what I came here for,” she laments.
At the end of her beautiful ballad she decides to put on her uniform and smile. As her song winds down a statistic pops up above her head that claims illegal immigrants pay $7.2 million dollars in federal taxes each year.
Sapp and Chasten touch on stereotypes with black jokes, Ruiz recites a poem about the twisting up of religion and the whole quartet performs a moving piece on handguns in the form of a commercial. The nation’s callousness about the death of urban teenagers is explored and the commercial urges people to call 1-800-shoot.
FEMA faux pas and a homeless former entrepreneur are just the tip of the iceberg in “Ameriville.” Urban Renewal is depicted with the “Choke a Nigga Out Investment Group” knocking on inner-city doors and urging city dwellers to sell their houses for much less than it’s worth. Over time, those who weren’t willing to sell are pushed out in the name of gentrification.
“Ameriville” found a way to talk about the most uncomfortable issues in America without being preachy. The performances elicited laughs, and dismayed sighs with a perfectly placed musical modulation or a harrowing statistic underscored by silence.
They revealed the story behind each situation, which made the characters human, not just black, white, gay, old or homeless. It’s their humanity that the performers urged theatergoers to see.
*published in The Bay State Banner 3/22/2012