Monthly Archives: January 2009

Ameriville (From: ATL)

(Image by: Mildred Ruiz (UNIVERSES)


(For ATL Newsletter/Press – by: Sarah Lunnie)

How high is the water momma?
4 feet high and rising

Three years after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf coast, our memory betrays us. The storm drowned thousands of city residents in their bedrooms and attics, forced more than one million to flee for safety, and put 80% of New Orleans under water. But its images have receded from the covers of our morning newspapers. News of levee breaches and rooftop rescues no longer confronts us when we turn on the television. The barrage of disturbing revelations—shoddy engineering, bad science, decades of irresponsible policy converging in a lethal, man-made maelstrom—has subsided. The country has moved on. But for the displaced New Orleans residents still living in FEMA trailers or scattered across America, the storm continues.

Today the per capita murder rate in New Orleans is the highest in the nation. The Road Home Program, designed to compensate Louisiana homeowners affected by Katrina and Rita, has failed to address the state’s severe housing shortage. Many fear that rebuilding efforts will marginalize entire populations: gentrification neatly disguised as renewal. And although the Army Corps of Engineers is rebuilding the levees, most experts agree that current plans are frighteningly inadequate. In Katrina’s wake lies an interminable sea of questions, about what and whom we value and how we care for our home and each other. In an era of fast news and short attention spans, they are questions we would do well to remember.

How high is the water poppa?
8 feet high and rising

UNIVERSES (Gamal Abdel Chasten, Mildred Ruiz-Sapp, William Ruiz aka Ninja and Steven Sapp) didn’t set out to write a play about Hurricane Katrina. The ensemble’s earlier work, including Slanguage (which played at Actors in 2004) was more local in its scope, exploring the rhythms, voices and landscapes of its members’ New York neighborhoods, with a unique fusion of poetry, theatre, jazz, hip-hop, down-home blues and Spanish boleros. With Ameriville, they pan out to examine not only New Orleans, but the country at large. According to co-founder, writer and performer Steven Sapp, the project has been in the works since before the storm hit.

“After Slanguage, we started to tour a lot,” Sapp explains. “We went all around the country, and the more we saw, the bigger our new pieces became. Because what we were looking at was bigger. In the beginning, we weren’t even trying to write a new piece. Our initial thought was to look at the state that the country was in, this fear about everything. We were interested in exploring the history of fear in America. And then Katrina happened.”

The group wrote some small pieces responding to the disaster, and performed them at venues in New York City. The audience response was overwhelming. After a show at the Apollo, the group was approached by a couple that had just relocated from New Orleans. The couple told UNIVERSES they’d captured the experience of being caught in the storm in a way no one else had, and asked if any of the writers—Bronx and L.E.S. natives—were from New Orleans. It was then, Sapp says, they began to wonder if they’d found their next big project.

“That’s when Mildred suggested we tackle Katrina. And we thought, can we do that? Should we do that? We knew it had to be about more than just the storm. We knew if we were going to do this, we had to do it our way.”

How high is the water momma?
12 feet high and rising

On one level, Ameriville serves as a reminder to the rest of the nation. “We’re a selective country in terms of what we remember,” says Sapp. “Since Katrina, we’ve had forest fires in California and floods in Iowa. It’s like flipping the channel: we move on. But if you go down to New Orleans now, three years later, there are sections that look like it just happened. It’s chilling.” The play also seeks to expose deeply ingrained social inequities that existed before the levees toppled, but which came to national attention only in the storm’s wake.

The writers feel a deep connection with the people of New Orleans, built on the belief that though circumstances vary, people are the same everywhere. The title suggests that New Orleans is America in microcosm, and, by extension, that Katrina happened to all of us. Ameriville also rejects regionalism, making an argument for a more united, inclusive attitude toward citizenship. “We should be looking at each other as though this country were a village,” says Sapp. “We’re one big, giant America here. Wherever I go in this country, I’m an American when I’m there, and I should feel like one.”

UNIVERSES recently travelled to New Orleans to meet with survivors. They spoke with residents, artists, and community figureheads, and got their blessing to move forward with the project. The conversations left UNIVERSES with a feeling of great responsibility toward these people whose stories and experience are Ameriville’s core, and Katrina’s indelible legacy. Three years after landfall, as debris clears and newsprint fades, the survivors labor to repair what’s been broken; to excavate pasts from the wreckage, and rebuild their lives. Ameriville is both a monument to their struggle and a call to action for the nation: let us not forget what happened here.

How high is the water momma?
20 feet high and rising
How high is the water poppa?
24 feet high and rising

—Sarah Lunnie


UNIVERSES at St. Cloud Minnesota

St. Cloud, MN was amazing. Ann and Amy interpreted the entire performance in Sign Language. The young people at both the Apollo High School and at The South Side YMCA were amazing, and the teachers at Apollo were passionate. What an amazing trip. I will come back and build on this post as I have to run off right now, but I just couldn’t let it pass me by. Much love to St. Cloud Minnesota. Stay warm. 🙂


Universes -’09

Happy New Year fam,

Happy Birthday Michelle Obama.
Happy Birthday Muhammad Ali.

Happy upcoming Birthday Dr. Martin Luther King.
Here we go.  The beginning of a new year and with the upcoming inauguration of “President Obama”, a new era. 🙂
We hope you are all well.  We are doing great.
This is a post to let you know how we are launching UNIVERSES into this New Year.
*    Our first 2009 tour stop is:   Saturday January 24th at Petters Auditorium in the Benedicta Arts Center of the college of Saint Benedict, Minnesota.  
Brrrr. We are packing heavy, lots of layering and hot chocolate.  🙂
Ninja will be flying into Minneapolis from Sunny San Juan, Puerto Rico where he live 4 blocks from the beach and I will great him in MN with a smile, a hug and his NYC coat.  
Gamal will join us post inauguration.
We will be there in residence for a coupe of days and then home for a moment before we head out to Louisville, KY for development and rehearsals of “Ameriville” for the Humana Festival ’09.
While we are in MN we will be working on pieces for Humana and will begin to share some developmental moments so that you can join us on the journey if only via blog.  This work is very important to us.  It is crucial that America learn from herself.
We hope you will be able to follow our blogs on this Ameriville journey.  
We will write back soon.  Stay tuned.
Celebrate who we are as America this unforgettable week when a miracle happened on the Hudson and a historic miracle happens in the Nation’s Capital.  Congratulations America for what you’ve done.