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(l. to r.): Lemon, Mildred Ruiz, Gamal Abdel Chasten,
Flaco Navaja, and Steven Sapp in Slanguage.
(Photo: Joan Marcus)
The air pops and hums with rhythms, rhymes, and the music of language created and celebrated by five South Bronx natives who call themselves Universes and call their new show Slanguage. These hip-hop poets revel in the poetry of words that you won't find in the OED; there's even a glossary stuffed in the program for members of the audience who aren't exactly down with it, if ya know what I mean. But don't let unfamiliarity with the street language stop you from getting down to New York Theatre Workshop to see this show. It's a close-up look into the minds and lives of kids who too often go ignored.

Gamal Abdel Chasten, Lemon, Flaco Navaja, Mildred Ruiz, and Steven Sapp are Universes--they're poets, singers, dancers, writers, and musicians; brilliant and creative, all of them. What they bring to the stage in Slanguage is a collage of stories, songs, scenes, and spoken-word poetry. This is their world and their life. They chant:

We are change
And change is constant
Always changing
We are po and po is always askin' for change
But the game has changed
Can you see me now?
The quiet kid
The one in the back of the classroom

This isn't a documentary: It's a highly personal, percussive, poetic, in-your-face performance piece from these five young, amazingly talented people. There is a hip-hop flavor throughout, though the cast often detours to such other styles as jazz, blues, and Spanish rhythms. There is an explosion of street poetry as they meld and weave their voices to create sound pictures of life in the city.

In an early scene, we're in a subway car. The performers create the sounds of the moving train and take turns imitating the folks who populate it, from an angry passenger determined to get a seat to a man enthusiastically proclaiming how he's found the Lord. All the while, Ruiz's chants of "Battery one dala" are as insistent as the train's engine. Once we board the train with this group, it's a headlong, nonstop, and thoroughly unpredictable ride.

Their energetic turns together are thrilling, with beats, rhymes, and movement--often mixed with Ruiz's soaring voice--bringing the street to life. All around are merchants, con artists, folks dreaming of winning the lottery or getting a record deal, and kids doing their best to look tough. This will all sound familiar to anyone who's ever walked through one of those "bad neighborhoods." It will no doubt resonate deeply with those who have lived there. For everyone else, it's an education.

Universes' collective presence is a strong one, but the members of the group have their individual talents, too, and they each get a couple chances to shine on their own. Sapp shouts out a series of alliterative rhymes at breakneck speed in a piece called "Alphabet City"; Navaja talks about Puerto Rican culture and the emergence of 'Spanglish'; Ruiz preaches a free verse sermon; Gamal philosophizes about his true heritage and Bruce Lee; and Lemon spins a Seuss-style tale about two warring gangs in the land of slang. It isn't just a night at a Nuyorican Café poetry slam, nor are these the same old stories you see on TV. Each of the poet-performers has his or her own point-of-view, some of them not so trendy and not so expected but all of them declared with truth, sensitivity, and theatrical flourish.

Director Jo Bonney keeps the evening moving along nicely as the gang jumps from one piece to the next. Slanguage isn't very long--a little over an hour and a half--but it feels remarkably complete, like a comprehensive tour through the lives, thoughts, and dreams of these five people. They have a wonderful sense of humor and they're very self-aware; they know where they've been and where they're going. They have a remarkable faith and a perceptive understanding of their world. Thankfully, they're unpretentious, poking gentle fun at the very poetry slams where they likely honed their skills but making it clear that poetry is a source of inspiration and a means of expression for them. It's the vessel through which they communicate with us, be it in clever rhymes (like "Alphabet City") or through pure sounds and stark imagery (as in the haunting "Underground Train").

In a world of op-ed pieces, celebrity benefits, and gritty "real-life" dramas, it's a relief to hear about life in the city and on the streets from the people who have actually been there and done that. Universes are smart, witty, opinionated, and talented--and they have a lot to say:

Can you see me now ...
The quiet honor student in the back of the classroom
The one you feared as you clutched your purse
The one who fits the description
The one you made invisible
Can you see me now?

Yes, we can, and it's about time.

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