Performance poetry or slam poetry is an odd hybrid. It tends not to stand up well as written verse, and it also typically suffers in comparison to the musical forms it imitates; however, it still can be quite compelling. Universes' show Ameriville excelled as a performance piece, though at times it settled for pulling on bleeding heartstrings.
Universes four members all delivered inspired performances, sustained over the course of a hour and a half, intermission-less show. They sang solo, harmonized, improvised percussion on the minimalist set's table and chairs and sometimes detoured into comic vignettes. The Bronx-based quartet's show broadly surveys injustice in a show framed by the devastation of Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures. The group unveiled the piece two years ago, and it was brought to New Orleans by Southern Rep, JuneBug Productions, Ashe Cultural Arts Center and Tulane University.
The poets labored to present an array of New Orleanians' experiences, including being trapped on a roof with flood waters rising, looking for lost loved ones, suffering the stresses of dealing with FEMA and rebuilding in the Vietnamese community in eastern New Orleans. Mardi Gras Indian beats were worked into the soundtrack, and there were lighthearted bits about ghost tours and an animated scene of Marie Laveau. Overall, they fairly and dramatically represented many sentiments expressed locally in the years after the storm.
Ameriville also took up many issues not unique to New Orleans. Racism was a common topic, as were issues of class, from low-income people getting squeezed by gentrification and the rising cost of health care to the indignities of being homeless. Universes cofounder Stephen Sapp offered a very moving scene in which a homeless man shares what he senses about the discomforts of people whose shoes he shines for a couple dollars. The ensemble showed great range in acting and singing ability as they worked through a litany of social conscience issues.
One slight drawback to the show is the repetition in the chronicles of suffering. I don't know who would choose to go to this show and argue that racism is OK or that poverty isn't so bad. The show sometimes took a didactic tone, though the messages were pretty simple. Human suffering can be dramatically compelling with just the victim telling the story, but when a show lines up a parade of social conscience issues in condensed vignettes, the sequence risks becoming tedious. One vignette featured a Latino who enlisted in the Army after 9/11 and found killing Muslims in Iraq troubling. That's not an illegitimate sentiment, but the sole focus on race to the exclusion of reflecting on killing in general or the legitimacy of the war made it seem like an example of the objectifcation other parts of the show decried. Ultimately, the caliber of the performers kept Ameriville from getting mired in a flood of causes, and if you're among the converted, the preaching can seem righteous. — Will Coviello