In UniSon, a new musical by Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s resident ensemble Universes, a young apprentice is left with a box of poetry from an old mentor. That’s a bit how the show itself developed—except that the box of poetry at its genesis was filled with the words of playwright August Wilson.
Back in 1995, Universes cofounder Steven Sapp unexpectedly heard Wilson read his poetry at a gathering in Pittsburgh.
“When I actually heard this man, who I only knew as a playwright, reading poetry, I thought, ‘Wait a minute—he’s a real poet,’” Sapp recalled. In fact, Wilson had begun with poetry before taking on theatre. In the 1960s, he joined the Centre Avenue Poets Theater Workshop in Pittsburgh and went on to cofound Black Horizon Theater with poets from Centre Avenue. When Wilson died in 2005, the headline for his New York Times obituary called him “Theater’s Poet of Black America.”
Wilson’s poetry stayed with Sapp, but it wasn’t until he met Wilson’s widow, Constanza Romero, at a showing of Universes’ Party People at OSF in 2012, that Sapp was able to learn more. That meeting led to Universes members reading a collection of Wilson’s unpublished poetry, which is the basis of the characters and story of UniSon.
The show, which OSF premiered in April and will run through Oct. 28, isn’t the only new musical with roots in the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s. Also in April, Zakiyyah Alexander and Imani Uzuri’s coming-of-age musical GIRL Shakes Loose at Penumbra Theatre in Saint Paul, Minn., was infused with the poetry of Sonia Sanchez. (The show will be showcased at the National Alliance for Musical Theatre’s festival of new musicals in October.)
These latest works—as well as the blending of music, theatre, and poetry—are part of “a larger continuum,” said Nicole Hodges Persley, an associate professor of theatre at the University of Kansas.
“What we’re seeing right now is something that’s been incubating for a very long time,” said Persley, whose research interests include African-American theatre and performance as well as hip-hop. Both shows fuse a variety of musical genres, including jazz and hip-hop, and these are not incidental associations; jazz, Persley noted, influenced poets of the Black Arts Movement in the ’60s and ’70s, which in turn helped inspire the hip-hop theatre movement.
Poetry read aloud—especially poetry written with a fierce sense of purpose—can deliver a message in a way no traditional play could, said Persley, who also acts and directs in regional theatre. A quick verse might swiftly and vibrantly deliver a message that would take pages of dialogue to convey. “When you have an urgency behind why you need to make your art, that’s going to be captured on the page,” Persley said. “When it’s enlivened through breath, that just is super exciting, for people to be able to feel it in their body. I think it helps people connect.”
The connection to Sonia Sanchez’s poetry was one reason Penumbra artistic director Sarah Bellamy said she wanted to produce GIRL. Bellamy first learned of the show about three years ago during a reading at the Lark Play Development Center in New York.
“I don’t think it would be as deep, as rich, without the poetry, and I don’t think it would have turned my head without the poetry,” said Bellamy, whose father established Penumbra—a forum for African-American voices that nurtured a young August Wilson’s stage work—40 years ago, when the Black Arts Movement was getting underway.
Before the opening of GIRL, about 200 Penumbra patrons got filled in about Sanchez’s work at a free screening of the documentary BaddDDD Sonia Sanchez. Now in her 80s, Sanchez is known for merging music with traditional poetic formats, and is the author of more than a dozen books of poetry. That Sanchez’s work spans both literary and performing arts worlds was one reason composer Imani Uzuri told playwright Zakiyyah Alexander she was interested in working on a project incorporating Sanchez’s poetry.
“For me, Sonia Sanchez’s writing is sacred text,” said Uzuri. “I had a vision of setting some of her poetry to music. She had long been a creative hero of mine, and I felt like the sounds of her poetics were beckoning me. As a composer, I was intrigued by her gorgeous use of metaphor and the various rhythms found within her storytelling.”
When Sanchez agreed to her work being used, she asked the creators consider her full body of work. Alexander and Uzuri said this worked to their advantage, as Sanchez’s canon offers both the insights of a young woman and those of an elder, allowing them to could pick the pieces that would best fit the journey of their protagonist and other characters. The resulting musical—with a title that references Sanchez’s retrospective Shake Loose My Skin—sets Sanchez’s poetry to music, with the poetry acting as lyrics to express the emotions of the characters, explained Uzuri.
Those emotional scenes are crucial in GIRL, which tells the story of a young woman searching for her place in the world. After seeing her Bay Area startup fail, Girl runs away to New York. But when a family tragedy calls her home to small-town Georgia, Girl must confront her past—and her estranged mother. Meanwhile, Girl is trying to come to terms with her feelings for the woman she jilted, as well as deal with the reappearance of an old boyfriend.
Working with poetry allowed the creative team to find an unexpected way into the narrative, Alexander said.
“In the past, I’ve worked in a collage style, using other material seamlessly folded within my own, and thought the same approach would be possible here,” Alexander said. “The heightened language of the poetry would just serve as more character insight, if we were careful.”
She pointed to a scene in Act II of GIRL as an instance of Sanchez’s poetry working as song while seamlessly moving the story forward. When Girl finds herself in her late grandmother’s house, she sings a poem that Sanchez wrote about her own grandmother. Incorporating the voice of an established writer didn’t impede her own writing process, Alexander said. If anything, it allowed for growth, as Sanchez became a mentor for Alexander and Uzuri.
“Ultimately, this felt like a silent collaboration between the three of us,” Alexander said. “Sonia has been very available to support our progress and at times gives notes on the intention behind a poem we used, but allowed us the space to tell our story.”
The show itself suggests there is wisdom is learning from the past. A symbol that appears in GIRL is the West African Sankofa bird, typically depicted as a bird with its head turned backward plucking an egg off its back. In the show, this correlates with Girl’s journey back to her birthplace. It could also relate to the creation of the show itself, Bellamy said.
“The other parallel there, of course, is reaching back to the writers who created a path for us, going back to Sonia Sanchez’s work and pulling it forward, and making it live in this contemporary moment,” Bellamy said. “Our ancestors have created powerful, fertile ground for us if we’re willing to plant our seeds there.”
The inclusion of Sanchez’s poetry gave actress Alexis Sims good ground to build the character of Girl in the Penumbra production, which was directed by May Adrales. Sims said the poetry allowed her to communicate with the audience in a way that went beyond conventional musical theatre.
“In musical theatre, you sing because the words are not enough and you dance because the singing is not enough,” said Sims. “Those are elevations of the text, and I think that using poetry elevates that even further.” Sims added that a familiarity with Shakespeare helped her feel comfortable with the heightened language in GIRL.
The inclusion of Sanchez’s words also created a certain rhythm and pacing, Sims said. This can be heard when her character performs lines from one of Sanchez’s love poems: “Sex is kinky & clean shaven / sex is straight & gay / sex is do it anyway.”
“Even saying those words, there’s a sensuality to them that you really can only find in poetry, where the words themselves strung together create an instinct and also create a feeling,” Sims said.
While Sanchez’s poetry peppers GIRL’s lyrics to help tell the story, Wilson’s poetry “spun an entire world for the Universes,” said UniSon director Robert O’Hara. Although Wilson’s words are part of the production, O’Hara emphasized that the show is not an August Wilson play.
“No one can match what August Wilson has achieved in theatre, and we were not trying to do that,” O’Hara said. “Rather, we were simply trying to express our love and the humanity of his poetry by creating something as an inspiration from them, but not trying to equate the two, which cannot be done.”
The production team wanted to “lift up the language of August Wilson,” O’Hara said; the Wilson estate had also mandated the production highlight Wilson’s work. Every time there is a reference to one of Wilson’s poems, the text or title of the poem is shown on a video screen. Looking to multimedia concerts for inspiration, O’Hara said he didn’t want the production to look like a poetry reading.
“I was looking to the idea of concerts you see from certain artists, like Michael Jackson or Madonna or Beyoncé,” O’Hara said. “They have these huge storylines. They’re telling a story with their concert, and there’s a lot of video, and there’s a lot of theatrical presentation.”
During the writing process, Sapp said Universes considered Wilson another )(absent) member of the group. In addition to Sapp, Universes members Mildred Ruiz-Sapp and William Ruiz, a.k.a. Ninja, worked on the project, along with co-composers Broken Chord and Toshi Reagon.
Universes zeroed in on two of Wilson’s poems in particular, “Identification of the Seven Terrors” and “Testimony of the Witness,” to craft the overarching story of UniSon. Wilson’s description in “Identification” helped Universes find the characters for the show, Sapp explained.
“The way he described it was, ‘Terror One, it’s all hips and legs and comes slowly.’ And each terror had a characteristic, and we were like, ‘Oh my God, that’s seven characters right there,’” recalled Sapp, who also portrays the Poet in UniSon. Joining Sapp onstage are the other members of Universes, who take on specific characters as well as ensemble roles.
Sapp said that the process of turning a box of Wilson’s poetry into living characters onstage has been overwhelming, even after all the years he and Universes have been working. But it’s the kind of work that Universes has been preparing for all their career, long before U.S. theatres knew what to make of them.
“When we were in the poetry scene, we were poets, but what we were doing with it was making musical theatre pieces onstage, so people were kind of like, ‘What is this?’” Sapp recalled. All that changed when The New York Times called them “a theatre troupe.” Though Sapp said he prefers to describe the group as a “poetic music theatre ensemble,” the die was cast. As in the days of Shakespeare or the Greeks, poets are making theatre, and vice versa.
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