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A CurtainUp Review

by Louisa Whitfield

And our epitaph will read:
This ensemble echoed the exodus from exaggerated Ebonics
To an eclectic experiment examining the everyday expression.


Lemon, M. Ruiz, S. Sapp, F. Navaja and G. Chasten (Photo: Joan Marcus)
One can only use the word "eclectic" to describe this unusual piece written and performed by Universes, a group of young artists from the South Bronx. Directed by Jo Bonney (most recently, References to Salvador Dali Make Me Hot), Slanguage is the kind of show that will catch you by surprise, snap you to attention and make you unable to suppress a laugh.

Slanguage is more like an audio-visual collage than a theatrical piece. The five members of Universes bring together the music, movement and language of their background and playfully invite us in, allowing us to track the evolution of New York urban culture from the nursery rhymes of childhood to adult speech used in the streets.

Universes' members are Gamal Abdel Chasten, Lemon, Flaco Navaja, Mildred Ruiz and Steven Sapp. Wearing bold primary colors the five evoke a rainbow of creativity. Chasten and Sapp are strong pillars in the group, keeping rhythm with percussion boxes at times, at others cleverly spitting out hip-hop and jazz infused poetry. Navaja and Lemon are visually softer and slight in frame, yet just as sharp-tongued and witty. Ruiz's powerful voice provides the backdrop of sound, and her tough female presence gives the group its balance.

Slanguage evolves beautifully. To begin with we find ourselves on a subway ride that begins in Brooklyn and makes its way towards the Bronx. Along the way we are taken on detours, hilarious monologues and verbal jousting sessions that leave our brains ringing with the profusion of words. We might be told a story, for example, by Lemon, about the "war of slang", in which two local street gangs battle over their styles of language:

First, you had the Willys...
Famous for doubling up on their words
Famous for talkin' that
I need a jobby job
On the really real
But keep it on the lolo.
Then you had the Willy What The Dealys
From the North...
That would end whatever they were saying...
With you know what I mean and
Ya heard me.

We watch the group as they pretend to be children in the street, chanting rhymes and skipping rope, or as characters talking casually on a street corner. Like a lesson in slang, we learn everything from spanglish expressions like bochinche and jibaro to how "the bop walk" evolved. Within Slanguage are references to just about everything that has influenced this culture: Kung-Fu movies and the philosophy of Bruce Lee, the boleros and customs from Puerto Rico, stand-up comedians like Richard Pryor, Mohammed Ali, even Dr. Seuss. As Sapp puts it, "Another autobiography from at-risk agitators, assaulting and assembling articulation and alliteration, from Allah to Amos and Andy."

Whether you feel like a true urban American or an absolute alien to this culture, Slanguage is a great experience. With amazingly accurate observation the performers show us what has come out of the mish-mash of cultures in this city's neighbourhoods. Even if you feel tragically disconnected with New York's colloquialisms, have no fear. Universes will attempt to explain it to you. Slanguage is for everyone from "big head bowlegged B-Boy brothers," to "Coons under concrete constellations…who can't even conceive the concept of coolness." (And if you're still stuck, there's a glossary provided in the playbill.)

Written and performermed by Universes (Gamal Abdel Chasten, Lemon, Flaca Navaja, Mildred Ruiz and Steven Sapp)
Directed and developed by Jo Bonney
Set Design: Scott Pask
Lighting Design: James Vermeulen
Sound Design: Darron West
Projections: Robin Silvestri
Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes with no intermission
New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street (2nd Av/The Bowery)
Telephone (212) 239-6200
Order Tickets
Opening July 23, 2001, no closing specified
Tues - Thurs @8, Fri - Sat @ 7 and 10, Sun @ 5; $35
Reviewed by Louisa Whitfield based on 7/19/01 performance

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