Mildred Ruiz-Sapp | Performer of the week

Ameriville by Universes at Victory Gardens Theater

Ameriville by Universes at Victory Gardens Theater Photograph: Michael Brosilow

A member of the NYC-based Universes, Mildred Ruiz-Sapp is currently bringing down the Biograph in Victory Gardens’ Ameriville, with a booming singing voice and stunning command of spoken-word poetry. Raised in the Jacob Riis housing projects of Manhattan’s lower east side, Ruiz-Sapp began singing in church as a young girl, then studied literature and language at Bard College in upstate New York where she met Steven Sapp, a fellow Universes member. After graduation, the two moved to the Bronx, where they co-founded The Point, a youth development center dedicated to the cultural and economic revitalization of Hunt’s Point. The Point became a hub for theater, dance, and music in the neighborhood and the birth place of Universes. 16 years later, the group’s distinct combination of poetry, song, and movement has gained them national acclaim, and Ameriville reunites Universes with frequent collaborator Chay Yew, staging his first production as Victory Gardens artistic director. Ruiz-Sapp spoke to us about the birth of the project, the relationship between politics and art, and how New Orleans audiences reacted to the show.

How did the idea for Ameriville come about? What is the creative process for an ensemble show of this magnitude?

We started writing it a couple years after 9/11. Being New Yorkers, we were affected very closely by what was going on in the city. We started exploring the history of fear in America. As we were on tour with our previous show, Slanguage, we were interviewing people all over the country about fear. We even went to Salem, Massachusetts, and interviewed people about the Salem witch trials. A history of who are we and why we use fear. At a time when we had all these color levels, and we were constantly glued to our televisions to see what the president would say and what level we were of danger.

We started doing a lot of writing for that project and then Hurricane Katrina happened and we saw a country in disarray. It started to reveal a lot of old baggage, a lot of new baggage. The way that people treated each other from across the country, saying these folks were refugees or they deserved it. We heard that a lot. “That’s what happens when you’re pagans or when you’re this or that. You get punished by God.” Is this for real? This is fear in America. We are afraid right now. Then we asked people, “What do you want from America, what do you expect your country to do if you’re in this situation?” Eventually people are like, “I hope my neighbor will help me.” That was the ultimate answer everybody had. If my country’s not there when I needed it most, hopefully my neighbor will cross the street and come over and help me out.

We didn’t intend for it to be a play about New Orleans, but we wrote a little ten-minute piece like we do in the poetry scene, and we presented it to Chay. We created the whole play in ten minutes, but he wanted us to do a longer play. He wanted that to be the opening of the play. That’s the opening of Ameriville now, and it took a lot out of us to perform that. We were like, “Are you insane? This has to be the end of the play.” How are we going to survive for another hour and twenty minutes? He says, “Figure it out.” (Laughs.) Working with Chay is an evolutionary process. It’s constant, because Chay is not only directing the play, but he’s also a playwright in his own right. He comes in with a different lens, he’s a very dramaturgical director. Even when he’s directing something, the conversation is ongoing, so we were constantly writing to feed that appetite.

More things have happened in the country, so we’ve had to revisit the text. We’ve left a lot of places in the play where it’s porous so that we can always pop in with something new. When you have the devastation of Haiti, the devastation of Japan. Then Obama became president after that. Healthcare has always been an issue that fluctuates, so depending on where that issue is, that scene with the two old men talking about health care ebbs and flows. At the end, Steve [Sapp] has a long monologue, we call it “The Hostile Gospel”, where he talks about the burial and rebirth of America. In there he’s able to put in a lot of new information. The Occupy movement, and just bringing in current events. Understanding all the time that the reason why we can add these current events is because we should never feel like our scars from the past, those things that happened to us in the past, are over. They come along with us on a journey.

Hurricane Katrina, 9/11, those things helped us develop who we are as individuals, who we are as a country. As we move forward, we look back at it so we can continue to see our evolution. And it pushes a lot of buttons. It makes a lot of people comfortable, a lot of people uncomfortable. Some people are excited that some things are finally being said, some people wonder why they’re still being said. It’s a great conversation piece for people to walk away with and go home after the show and talk about it. Figure out if you’re going to be the neighbor that walks across the street, to the apartment next door, regardless of your political or religious differences. Are you actually going to be the person to go save someone?

What is your opinion on the relationship between politics and art? As a multidisciplinary artist, have you noticed anything specific to theater?

I think that politics are always a huge part of art. I think it’s necessary. That’s why you create work, to make people think, to provoke. To excite and challenge and send people off on some kind of mission to reevaluate what it is they’re doing. Whether it’s visual art, performance art, that’s what it’s supposed to do. Our internal politics are the thing that drives us. Even the thing that chooses what job we work in. How hard we push to gain a certain thing. If you lean more towards capitalism, you go for those kinds of jobs. If your politics lean toward social service, you’re going to look for those kinds of jobs, that kind of art, that type of life.

We’re a company of color. That is political in and of itself. There aren’t many companies of color that have toured for as long as we have. We’ve been traveling to communities across the country for a long time, just trying to understand how we fit into the picture of America. You look at your experience as a person of color in this country, and you look at the history of communities of color, and you try to evaluate at what stage did it change? How is it evolving? How is our image changing to the country at large? For Sonia Sotomayor to become a Supreme Court Justice, this is a Puerto Rican girl from the South Bronx, that was an amazing time for us to see ourselves differently in this country. To see us have the first black President of the United States. It’s a different message that’s being sent out, and America is changing, and it is taking some brave steps and attempts. Whether they’re successful or not, that’s a different argument.

Politics is always part of our community, and we try to bring all that to the stage. When you step on stage, before anything even comes out of our mouths, people see black and Latino. That has already started the political conversation in a person. Whether they’re excited to see those faces on stage, or all of a sudden they’re outraged to see those faces. And both have happened to us at every venue we’ve been to across the country. You think it’s not a conversation that happens, where people are still like, “Are there going to be any white people on stage?” But this actually happens all the time. It’s said to our face, to our theater venues. The venues have to deal with this in their subscriber bases.

It all comes with you, all this experience. We decided as a company we’re going to walk into every venue without this fear of “am I going to make someone upset” or “is my color going to be an issue?” It’s part of the politic of who we are, it’s a visual politic. There’s a cultural truth to even the texture of our voices. I sing a lot of gospels and a Spanish bolero, so in everything I sing there’s going to be that hint of cultural information that comes along with it. We are who we are artistically and we’re going to bring that to the stage, and hope that whoever’s on the other side in those seats is willing to have that conversation. It’s what American theater is supposed to do, isn’t it? If you’re just going to go there and see something that doesn’t challenge you, what’s the point? What’s the point of paying for something that isn’t going to take you home either livid with anger because you disagree with what’s happening or excited with possibilities? That’s the kind of theater we want to see, that’s the thing that excites us.

That’s what I loved about Ameriville. Theater is expensive, why would you go if it’s something you can see at the movies for ten bucks? I left the show with my friend and talked about it, then went home and talked about it with my roommate.

That’s what’s supposed to happen. Sometimes our talkbacks are longer than our show. When we did this show in New Orleans, the talk was two hours long or more. At one point we weren’t even talking, they were talking to each other, sharing their experiences. “I was on the roof for this many hours,” or you had Mardi Gras Indians, we had two Indian queens talking about how they lost all their beads and their feathers for the costumes for the next year’s Mardi Gras. You just start really liking listening to folks communicate with each other.

We were horrified. We can’t do this show in New Orleans, we’re New Yorkers, they’re going to judge us in a certain way. A lot of people didn’t come because they weren’t sure if they could deal with it, and the people that did come were just waiting for that talkback at the end of the show. I think that’s important, when people want to stay for those talkbacks, and want to understand what were your intentions and “how am I supposed to be feeling because right now I’m battling with a lot of different emotions.”

There’s a need for these dialogues, those crazy conversations that we need to be having on a daily basis so that we can understand what we’re even watching on the news. So much of it is going so quickly, we need to learn how to listen, how to have that dialogue then digest it and implement it into our lives. Internal democratic choices we can make so that we can shift as a country, because it’s moving with or without us. That’s the message of Ameriville. Talk about it, do what you have to do as a country. That’s the purpose of the word “Ameriville.” Looking at is as a village instead of this superpower. It should not be that. People don’t even bring each other a welcome gift when they move in anymore. Those things you see in the movies, when they bring you a pie? There’s a myth and a legend of what America is, and I have yet to receive an apple pie. (Laughs.)

Ameriville runs through February 26 at Victory Gardens Biograph Theater (2433 N. Lincoln Ave, 773-871-3000). Read our review of Ameriville here.

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