Friday, March 16, 2012

Looking for Ameriville

"The Universes" perform Ameriville.

Ameriville, by the Universes (Steven Sapp, Mildred Ruiz-Sapp, Gamal A. Chasten, and William Ruiz A.K.A. "Ninja," above) at ArtsEmerson through this weekend, is the kind of show you want to like - partly, I admit, because you feel you should like it.  As directed and developed by Chay Yew (of Chicago's Victory Gardens), Ameriville returns to the scene of a recent political crime - the shrugging off of the flooding of New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina - and attempts to conjure from that shameful failure a vision of an America that might actually be able to hang together in a crisis, even when it's people of color who are being victimized.  Yeah, imagine that - a nation that truly worked like a village, i.e., like "Ameriville."

And the resulting mix of rap, hip hop, gospel, rock and the spoken word is often rousing, and occasionally affecting; but while you can't fault its message, Ameriville only intermittently connects with the audience.  The performers aren't the problem - all are powerhouses (although the stand-out is probably Ms. Ruiz-Sapp - whose wails waft to the rafters with an edge of genuine pain, even when she's beaming with an incandescent smile).  No, it's really the material itself which still needs refinement and focus; Yew's text floats between poignant and satiric vignettes at will, and they tend sometimes to blend together; and to be honest, occasionally the performers' diction gets blurry, and we're no longer sure where we "are" in the show.

And then there's the simple fact that a real response to the problem of re-building New Orleans probably requires more dramatic structure, more literal dialogue; an impressionistic musical palette simply can't tell the whole story, even if it's delivered with a stomp.  History, politics, and by now deeply-engrained economic structures are all in play here.  Indeed, New Orleans probably stands as a literal symbol for the politics of the American underclass: one of the few true "melting pots" in the country, it's mostly built below sea level (a neat metaphor right there), and so despite being a font of American music, drama, and culture, it's perennially in harm's way, a Southern belle whose existence absolutely depends on the kindness of strangers (not to mention the elements).

And I think it's worth noting that the exodus from the city before the flood only exacerbated its problems - but Ameriville doesn't have much to say about that (and tellingly, we notice that nobody ever talks about getting organized after the disaster); nor does Yew spend much time dramatically connecting the aftermath of the deluge to the various larger political claims he wants to make (even though I agree with those claims, they'd be all the more powerful for not being so obviously assumed).

Still, in the show's specific, personal vignettes, the performers land their punches with a wallop; it's then that the levees of outrage break, and a flood of tears seems to pour forth before us.  It's hard not to wince, for instance, when a dazed resident asks anyone who will listen whether or not they've seen his mama;  more powerful still is the moment when a servicewoman returns to find her home has been destroyed, and that the nation she has pledged to defend with her life doesn't really give a damn.  It's at such clinch moments, when America's indifference to its victims crashes into its habitual exploitation of them, that Ameriville suddenly sings.

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