As the latest presentation of PlayMakers Repertory Company’s PRC2 second-stage series, and the first show of company’s 2010 new year, the hip-hop troupe Universes presents a retrospective revue of works culled from 13 years together onstage. Billed as The Big Bang, the 90-minute show is song after song of rap, jazz, poetry, and some of the most exciting music ever created a cappella. The show runs through this weekend with performances at 8 p.m. on January 13-17 with an additional 2 p.m. matinee on January 17.
Even if hip-hop is not your cup of tea, Universes gives a performance that will knock your socks off. Performing entirely without instruments other than mics, the quartet creates rhythms, jazz riffs, and spectacular vocals that are truly incredible and excitingly intense. The group writes all its own material, usually performing it in the form of plays that include dialog, scenes, and characterizations. But this retrospective combines musical highlights from all of the group’s 13-year history, and includes many award-winning selections from plays they have presented across the country and across the world. The four major works represented are Slanguage, Blue Suite, The Last Word, and their latest creation, Ameriville, which debuted only this season at the Humana Festival of New American Plays in Louisville, KY. Ameriville, which deals with the destruction of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina, opened the show with a dramatic blues performance.
All four performers in Universes hail from somewhere in the boroughs of New York City. They met while attending the area Open Mic nights in poetry clubs. Rather than waiting for poet after poet to read one poem and sit down, they got the idea of appearing onstage as a group, doing extended poetic presentations. Originally a quintet, the group culled a member and has had only one personnel change since. Ninja, a Latino from the Lower East Side, joined the group six years ago. All of the others are founding members. Collectively, they give a performance that is highly energetic, greatly entertaining and supremely passionate.
Mildred Ruiz is the group’s only female, bringing to the stage a prolific pen; impassioned performances, including songs sung entirely in Spanish; a tremendous range; and a truly impressive pair of lungs. She sings with a power that threatened to burst the small Elizabeth Price Kenan Theatre, as the others provide back-up, inspired percussion, and a variety of vocally recreated instruments. Gamal Abdel Chasten is a master at creating vocally dynamic rhythms, deep bass or electric guitar riffs, and a trumpet that makes one wonder where the horn is hidden. Steven Sapp is the jokester of the group, standing impressively over six feet and presenting a comical demeanor that is infectious. All four give high-voltage performances, and the combination is not just incredibly entertaining but also imaginative and truly creative, giving a brand-new meaning to the word “ensemble.”
“Won’t You Ring O Hammer” opens the show. It’s a medley of music taken from Spirituals, Blues, Soul, and a sampling of the Temptations’ “Papa was a Rolling Stone.” Taken from the group’s newest work, Ameriville, “Won’t You Ring O Hammer” delves into the political and physical destruction to America caused by the Katrina disaster. “Learn the Walk and Walk It,” from Slanguage, is a spirited offering of how to use pride, control, and cool in the face of adversity. “Soul Psychedelicized,” taken from a lyric by Jimi Hendrix, includes a performance by Ninja of a man incarcerated, waiting to serve out his time as “Just Another Number.” “The Original Bent” creates the trappings of Club “Yeah!” and its denizens, and a gifted performance of what the group called “Ebonic Phonics.” “Goin’ to Church” gives Ruiz the opportunity to play an evangelical pastor; and the finale, “Water,” talks of how we waste so much when other people and other nations have so little.
Universes is a quartet that simply pours power and passion from the stage; and performing in this small theater, they burst off the stage like a nova blast. If you can buy, beg, or borrow a ticket to see this quartet, then do not miss the opportunity. Hip-hop or not, this group will entertain you.
The Big Bang continues through Sunday, January 17th, at PlayMakers Repertory Company. See our theatre calendar for details.