The Bronx-based poetry/theater group Universes created Ameriville by asking what Hurricane Katrina showed about America as a nation.
"We have to look at America as a village as opposed to this huge thing," says Universes member Steven Sapp. "If something happens to one of us, it happens to all of us." He believes that every citizen has a responsibility to remember and to understand what happened in New Orleans. He sums up Ameriville's message by pointing to a line in the show, "Don't make no difference what side of the fence you're standing on. We all in the same boat, baby, and we gotta get our paddle on."
Ameriville is rooted in musical poetry, with a rhythmic structure powered by hip-hop, jazz, blues and Spanish boleros. Directed by Obie-winner Chay Yew, the work takes on the country's shortcomings through the lens of Katrina and the hurricane's aftermath.
Sapp co-founded Universes 13 years ago with fellow poets Mildred Ruiz, William Ruiz, and Gamal Abdel Chasten. Initially, Ameriville started as a look at the history of fear in America. When the levees broke and President Geroge W. Bush settled for a fly-over of the destruction, the quartet responded with a 10-minute musical montage about Katrina, which they tested in performance poetry venues in New York. From there, the project grew into a piece New York Times critic Charles Isherwood described as "everything that is wrong with America in 90 minutes of sketch and song."
As uncomfortable as it may be at first, Sapp says the piece ends on a hopeful, upbeat note. "But no," he concedes, "It's not all peaches and cream. And you can't be afraid to say that."
All four members spent time in New Orleans before they first staged Ameriville two years ago. "We talked a lot as a group about whether we should address [the city's problems]," Sapp says. "And if we did, then it was important that is was authentic, and coming from a non-righteous place." They gathered material from people who were directly involved in New Orleans' recovery. "We asked them, 'What should we do? What should we see?'" he says.
One of Sapp's characters is a young man searching for his mother after the hurricane. "Has anybody seen my momma?" he wails. The actor explains how he captured the character: "I can relate to this person, not because I've survived a storm but because I can relate to the conditions that have led to what's happening to him. You don't have to be black and from New Orleans to feel something deep. You don't have to be black and from the Bronx to feel something deep. You bleed blood and you feel passion and frustration and discrimination."
After two years of performances, they are excited about bringing the show to New Orleans.
"This is our Broadway," says artist Steven Sapp of its New Orleans premiere. "We've performed in a lot of places [in and outside the United States]. But to come to New Orleans with this show is the pinnacle of our work."
But Sapp doesn't expect an easy audience, either. "We hope people are able to receive it and feel it," he says. "We hope they don't say, 'Who are these people from New York and what do they know about us?' This is not art for art's sake. Our souls are in this one." — Samantha Leese
8 p.m. Wed.-Sat.; 3 p.m. Sun.; through March 7
Southern Rep, The Shops at Canal Place, 365 Canal St., third floor, 522-6545; www.southernrep.com
Tickets $20-$29, $35 opening night (Wednesday), $10 student rush