Universes, the Bronx-based performance troupe that fuses spoken word, song, rhythm and theater, epitomizes the concept of arts-as-multidisciplinary. The performers who comprise Universes—all of whom are persons of color—serve as storytellers and poets and music-makers. They're also social critics who aim to give voice to the silenced. And, for the most part, they succeed in doing so without being too heavy-handed. That’s no easy feat.
Their newest piece, Spring Training, currently has its world premiere at PRC2 in Chapel Hill. Commissioned by Carolina Performing Arts and PlayMakers Repertory Company as part of their Rite of Spring at 100 project, a centennial celebration of Stravinsky’s revolutionary composition, the members of Universes were given free rein to adapt The Rite of Spring in any manner they chose. The result is less an adaptation or a recreation of Rite than an entirely new piece incorporating Rite as one thematic ingredient. In culinary terms, Universes uses Stravinsky to season Spring Training, but doesn't let Stravinsky be the dominant flavor.
That’s not to say you can't taste Rite in the work, which features Universes’ company members Mildred Ruiz-Sapp, William “Ninja” Ruiz, Steven Sapp and Gamal Chasten under direction by Chay Yew. The opening and closing song of Spring Training, a soulful evocation of the struggles of everyday life, melodically mirrors the familiar, haunting bassoon at the beginning of Stravinsky’s composition. But here, the music gives way to Bobby McFerrin-esque rhythmic beatboxing and shadows of James Brown and Marvin Gaye.
Then begin the stories: poignant, heartbreaking and sometimes funny tales of suffering and, yes, the rites of passage young people must go through—the spring training of our lives we endure before confronting the even greater challenges of adulthood.
Each performer assumes the identity of a single character throughout the work, telling poetic tales of his or her childhood and maturation while the other actors provide musical and rhythmic accompaniment. There’s Geneva (Steven Sapp), a young black woman growing up amid riots; Luisa (Mildred Ruiz-Sapp), a fiery Latina whose “native” mom is murdered before her eyes; Trevor (Gamal Chasten), an overweight, orphaned black man who drops out of Stanford when he accidentally gets his girlfriend pregnant; and Rick (Ninja Ruiz), a drug-dealing Latino in the projects of Chicago whose girlfriend is killed in a shoot-out.
Clearly, death hangs over this piece like a dark cloud, as do the ideas of othering and opposition, of revolution and rioting—both internal and sociopolitical. It’s a nuanced approach to the themes of Stravinsky’s work, one that makes us consider class and race and our own sense of privilege. And when musical accents fade out in the second half of the piece to let spoken word rise from the silent ashes, the power and the poetry of Universes’ words resonates.
Spring Training is most striking when the stories told borrow from what are likely personal experiences from the lives of the actors and their family members—detailed recollections that are real and full-bodied and evocative. When actors tell rather than show, summing up the lessons learned from their stories or oversimplifying narratives, the characters seem more formulaic, stereotypes used to illustrate a point rather than real human beings.
But this is a work in progress, a “playing with an embryo,” as Ruiz-Sapp put it in a post-show conversation. These powerfully delivered monologues and poems—here, still read from the pages of script—will surely develop as Universes continues to work with this new piece.
From spring training to the regular season, we look forward to seeing its evolution.
Spring Training runs at UNC’s Kenan Theatre through April 28. Tickets are $15-36.