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Combine poetry, jazz riffs, and hip-hop attitude with down-home blues and Spanish boleros, and you’d have the Universes ensemble, a troupe of five multitalented performers from the South Bronx.

“Their energy and realness is unmatchable,” states the Village Voice, and Backstage notes that “their words snake around each other in a seductive portrait.”

The group will perform its “Slanguage” program – called “exuberant, insightful entertainment” by The New York Times — 8 p.m. Tuesday at the Williams Center for the Arts. Tickets for the public cost $15 and may be purchased by calling the box office at 610-330-5009.

The play contains language that may not be suitable for some audiences.

Universes will serve a two-day residency at Lafayette through an ArtsConnect grant from the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation and a special touring grant from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. The ensemble will attend:

  • a reception 7:30 p.m. Sunday at the Portlock Black Cultural Center, 100 McCartney Street;
  • the African American Art class taught by Curlee Holton, associate professor of art, 10 a.m. Monday in Williams Center for the Arts room 108, in a session open to the campus community;
  • an open discussion (featuring member Mildred Ruiz) on “Latina Identities in American Culture and Society; Spectrum of Roles and Gender Issues in Hispanic America,” noon Monday at Interfaith Chapel, Hogg Hall, hosted by Michelle Geoffrion-Vinci, associate professor and assistant head of foreign languages and literatures;
  • the Creative Writing course taught by Alex Ohlin, assistant professor of English, in a class on “‘Performance Poetry’ and the Creative Writing Process” 1 p.m. Monday in Kirby Hall of Civil Rights room 106;
  • a poetry workshop for South Bethlehem youth 7:30 p.m. Monday at Touchstone Theater with the Hispanic American League of Artists.

“Slanguage” will lead off the Williams Center’s Footlights series, which continues with Marian Soto’s La Maquina del Tiempo, Friday, Nov. 12; Dance Brazil, Tuesday, Feb. 1; and Ballet Folklorico Cutumba, Tuesday, March 22. A Footlights subscription costs $59, a savings of $14 compared to the total cost of tickets for the individual performances.

Universes breaks the boundaries of traditional theater to create its own brand. Its core members are Steven Sapp, Mildred Ruiz, Gamal Abdel Chasten, Flaco Navaja, and Lemon, who starred in the Tony Award-winning Russell Simmons Def Poetry Jam on Broadway. The company’s newest members, Rokafella (of Full Circle Productions) and Indio Melendez, join “Slanguage” to bring even more elements of style to the already arresting show.

The core members of Universes teamed up with critically acclaimed director Jo Bonney to create “Slanguage” on a commission by New York Theatre Workshop. This full evening of theater, poetry, storytelling, rhythm, music, song, and dance was first developed as a workshop production at P.S. 122 in November 1999 and continued to develop there and at Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles, 1999; New York Theater Workshop, 2000-02; and New World Theater, Amherst, Mass., 2000-02. Universes has since claimed home bases at New World Theater and its own UniverseCity Theater Network in the Bronx.

“Slanguage” is featured in The Fire This Time: African American Plays for the 21st Century, a volume published in 2002 that also includes works by August Wilson, Suzan-Lori Parks, Lynn Nottage, Robert O’Hara, Robert Alexander, Brian Freeman, Oni Faidi Lampley, and Kamilah Forbes and The Hip Hop Junction.

Universes has performed Off- Broadway in venues such as the New York Theatre Workshop, Andy Warhol Museum, Nuyorican Poets Café, Museum of Natural History, St. John the Divine, and Sing Sing Prison. Previous college residencies have included Harvard, Princeton, Rutgers University, University of Massachusetts, Bard College, Binghamton University, Sarah Lawrence College, City College, New York University, Pace University, and Lehman College.

Ensemble members met in the New York poetry scene. They explain: “Hitting at open mikes around the city was the name of our game. Varying in age range, ethnic backgrounds and experiences, each member of the troupe brings a different element of style to create five collaborating Universes in one very real world. Steven is the voice of jazz and literary style from the ’70s to now; Mildred is the voice of cultural hybridity, mixing Spanish boleros with gospel, the blues and contemporary sounds and images; Gamal is “the bottom,” his roots reaching down into lyricism and music; Flaco, an old soul embedded in the young voice of salsa and NuYorican poetry; and Lemon, the voice that grinds through the streets of our reality, our urbanity. And, in this way, we found that ‘this ensemble would echo the exodus from exaggerated Ebonics to an eclectic experiment examining the everyday expression.’”

The nationally recognized Performance Series at Lafayette attracts more than 10,000 people each season. It has been cited for performing excellence by the National Endowment for the Arts, National Dance Project, Chamber Music America, Lila Wallace Reader’s Digest Fund, Pennsylvania Arts and Humanities Councils, and Association of Performing Arts Presenters.

The 2004-05 Performance Series at Lafayette is supported in part by gifts from Friends of the Williams Center for the Arts; by the F.M. Kirby Foundation; by provisions of the Alan and Wendy Pesky Artist-in-Residence Program, J. Mahlon and Grace Buck Foundation, and Croasdale Fund; and by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts.

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