Also see Susan's review of A Fox on the Fairway
The four talented members of the performance art troupe called UNIVERSES have a lot to say, and their original work Ameriville, now at Round House Theatre in Bethesda, Maryland, gives them a chance to say it loudly, vividly, with immediacy, and often in four-part harmony.
The 95-minute show offers a noteworthy synthesis of the spoken word, song, stylized movement choreographed by Millicent Johnnie, and video projections by Brian Freeland, performed by four people working together as a single unit. The problem is that, at times, the text of Ameriville crosses the line between artistic advocacy and straightforward preaching.
The members of UNIVERSESSteven Sapp, Mildred Ruiz-Sapp, Gamal A. Chasten, and William Ruiz (aka "Ninja")and their director and collaborator, Chay Yew, began by researching life in New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina, when the collapse of the levees drowned large segments of the city. They share stories of ordinary people trying to rebuild their lives, many of whom face insurmountable odds even five years after the onslaught. Here are vendors selling post-Katrina keepsakes to the tourists they call "tragedy vultures," tour guides recounting the city's history while walking amidst the ornate monuments of the above-ground cemeteries, and the ghosts of the lost describing the horrors of being trapped in the rising waters. As one survivor says: "They call it post-traumatic stress disorder, but it isn't post-anything."
However, the second half of the performance shifts from this affecting poetic realism to hitting the audience over the head with the underlying message: Americans are all in this together and we need to look after each other. Had the performers simply enacted individual stories of Americans in crisisvictims of gun violence, the homeless, longtime neighborhood residents forced to leave their homes because of gentrification and the mortgage crisis, the underinsuredthe viewer would get the point. Instead, they lean on statistics ("12 percent of the world's population uses 85 percent of the water, and that 12 percent isn't in the Third World"), which shifts their efforts from a work of the imagination to an illustrated lecture.
The main point of the performance may be that the current anger in American society is not limited to the conservative "tea partiers" who capture the news headlines. The members of UNIVERSES are upset about the current trends they see, but their perspective is 180 degrees away from the people whose words seem to dominate the current debate.
Round House Theatre