Seven virtuosic performers from the company UNIVERSES are in town at City Theatre with Live From the Edge, a production that might best be described as a “highlight reel” of their unique brand of musical storytelling. Using nothing but the human body as an instrument, the ensemble generates an astonishing richness of harmony, melody, and rhythm as they deliver songs that blend and juxtapose the musical vernaculars of the spiritual, gospel, jazz, hiphop, Spanish bolero, Portuguese fado, beatboxing, salsa, and the blues, with the occasional nod to Motown and the American musical. Interspersed with the songs are spoken word poems, often underscored by an complex bed of vocal effects, that showcase the group’s origins in the New York slam poetry scene of the late 20th century.
Live From the Edge doesn’t have a set narrative, but it does have a clear aim: to bring forth “the sights and sounds of folks [they’ve] met along the way.” Among those, on the day I saw the show, were New Yorkers “walking to survive” in the 1970s, a man grappling with suicidal despair, the inhabitants of a thin-walled apartment building bearing witness to domestic violence, the denizens of an imagined jazz club, the worshippers at a celebratory church service, and a woman plaintively seeking an answer to the question “why do men die?” The extended sets of poetry and song weave a rich tapestry of the human experience, with a particular focus on the pain, oppression, striving, and yearning of people from the global majority. One poignant set makes visible the humanity of men who have been incarcerated; another grieves the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
The poetry and lyrics are incisive and evocative, but what supercharges this work is the intricate and mesmerizing music. At times a solo voice sends chills down your spine – Mildred Ruiz-Sapp’s powerful, husky alto in particular – and at other times the group sings in tight harmonies that are downright sublime. Many of the numbers evolve from one style of music to another, or slip from spoken word poetry into song and back again. In some cases the group uses voice, breath, and vocal or physical beat to create a sonic atmosphere that brings an entire scene to life, as, for example, when they conjure the tense conditions of a crowded apartment block in “Walls So Thin.” The range of acoustic effects produced by these seven performers – who include Chris Mansa, Asia Mark, Nate John Mark, Nsangou Njikam, and Sophia Ramos in addition to UNIVERSES co-founders Steven Sapp and Mildred Ruiz-Sapp – is nothing short of magical, and frankly defy my powers of description. So, once again, I’m going to cheat – here’s a video amuse-bouche of an earlier iteration of the work:
Your mileage, when you go to see this show, will vary: Sapp promised at the close that each performance will be unique, responding to the state of the world each day with different material. And be ready: they like a lively, responsive audience, so shed your inhibitions and bring your most audience-participatory self.