Edge States

Edge States

Live From the Edge presented by Long Wharf Theatre exists in finely honed edge states: on the shifting precipice of a set not in stone; near the upper limit of artistic virtuosity; and with the sharpened courage required to express genuine heterodoxy. The “fusion theatre” performance, a non-linear showcase of work written, adapted and performed by the poetic musical theater ensemble UNIVERSES, also lives on an accidental edge: between Long Wharf’s fiftysomething years in a dedicated theater space and its new journey as an itinerant organization.

First stop? The Space Ballroom in Hamden (map), where Live From the Edge enjoyed its opening night last Saturday. Using only voices, hands and feet and switching between solo, feature and group numbers, the five members of UNIVERSES needed just five of their 90 minutes to blitz through hip hop, gospel, soul, spirituals and spoken word. The lyrical ideas in those early minutes were spread too thin to make an impact, but then came a big old schmear courtesy of an R&B tune that took us on a stroll through a sassy city neighborhood. “I walk to the metronome of my own hips,” company cofounder and frequent lead singer Mildred Ruiz-Sapp said while teeing up the song, sashaying on “hips” to the crowd’s delight.

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There were many more delights to come. Steven Sapp, the ensemble’s other cofounder and the lead emcee that night, performed a prodigious poem alliterating a path through the alphabet. Cheered by a contingent of Boricuas after disclosing her Puerto Rican heritage, Ruiz-Sapp then sang a bolero in Spanish, channeling the sorrow and bitterness of an unrequited love. Asia Mark soon crooned about singing on a subway platform, dreaming of lifting others and resenting not being lifted amid the passing people and trains of the Jay St-MetroTech station in Brooklyn. Nate John Mark played an oversharing witness being interviewed by the police about a grisly crime, and Nsangou Njikam, who’d mostly been backing and beatboxing to that point, delivered a poetic rant so powerful that it might, if I grasped its meaning, rank among the great defenses of free speech in America.

There was plenty more, but the set list for Live From the Edge is prone to shifting between performances, so I can’t say what other audiences will experience. Even the performers can’t necessarily do that, knowing that they might call an audible when the moment strikes.

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The crowd was asked to let moments strike, too. “In theater, we act, and then you drink wine,” Njikam said early during Saturday night’s set, gesturing to the cast and then the audience, who giggled. “In the-AY-ter, we interact. And then you drink wine.” It was one of a few invitations to the audience to “co-create this communal theatrical experience,” as a program insert put it; to “participate and respond” in real time.

Having been trained for generally good reasons not to be disruptive, it took the audience time to figure out how and when to oblige. At first they were mostly just trying to keep up with the show’s early breakneck speed. Then a slowdown and that moment of Boricua solidarity broke the ice. Prompts from the stage soon got replies from the seats. Laughter became boisterous, uninhibited. A seatmate I’d never imagine doing it started beatboxing along.

At a “Meet the Creators” event in February, Ruiz-Sapp emphasized that she not only expects but prefers it when audience members allow themselves to experience authentic individual reactions, whether positive or negative, to the ideas being expressed. Having now seen the show, which in Saturday night’s case had its squeamishly honest and visceral moments, I expect most attendees will hear ideas they find agreeable and—short of becoming enraptured to the point of losing all independent thought, which is certainly possible—a few ideas they don’t. I also got the sense that the performers themselves didn’t agree on every point they nonetheless helped each other express.

“Theatre is for everyone,” Long Wharf has been saying lately, and the glue that holds Live From the Edge’s many edges together—and secures UNIVERSES’s mission to produce work “rooted in a collective humanity”—is the crucial understanding that so is individuality.

Written by Dan Mims. Images, featuring (clockwise from bottom) Steven Sapp, Nsangou Njikam, Mildred Ruiz-Sapp, Nate John Mark and Asia Mark, photographed by T. Charles Erickson, collaged by Dan Mims and provided courtesy of Long Wharf Theatre.

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