It is the opening week of “UniSon” at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, a world premiere performance based on August Wilson’s poetry. What a perfect time to open this play: April was National Poetry Month and April 27 was Wilson’s birthday. Not just poetry, or rap, or hip hop, though all of these add texture to the story, “UniSon” is a play about words, a public expression of a private landscape. “UniSon,” by OSF’s repertory ensemble, UNIVERSES, is an homage to August Wilson, who died in 2005.
A Pandora’s box of terrors are released into the night and The Poet (Steven Sapp), now dead and resurrected by The Terrors, is challenged with word, imagery, lights and sound to confront the failures of his life. The Apprentice (Asia Mark) is an ethereal priest of sorts, opening a chest of the poet’s poems, sounding out nuance and meaning in her words. Much of August Wilson’s poetry was unpublished at the time of his death, and pieces of his poems, particularly “Testimony of the Witness” and “Identification of the Seven Terrors,” are surrounded by new poetry, music and dance, creating a structure for the narrative.
Each time The Apprentice opens the trunk, a new Terror takes the stage, seemingly benign until its words and actions force a memory into being. Acting in unison, The Terrors join together in words, gesture and sound as a chorus of crows or choirs or wraiths. And each in turn acts alone to personify August Wilson’s poetry and to humanize a wrong. This offers a clear organization making the play easy to follow and to understand.
The Poet embodies the bravado of a boxer with his lightness of dance and speed of the jab. Timing is everything, both in poetry and boxing, and that metaphor is borne out so well throughout the performance. The play is also about how The Poet confronts his earliest memories: his father is Terror #3 played by Kevin Kenerly, an aging boxer who moves with grace and strength, and Yvette Monique Clark as Terror #6, a mother who abandons The Poet at an early age in so many way, a child too young to understand her actions.
Steven Sapp and Asia Mark are superb leads in the play, and The Terrors are their muse and inspiration. For The Poet, The Terrors are his past and for The Apprentice, The Terrors are her future. The monstrous Butcher, Terror #2 (William Ruiz, aka Ninja), leads The Terrors in a horrible, bloody hack and Mildred Ruiz-Sapp as Terror #5, Hunter, crafts a frightening and contemporary Little Red Riding Hood tale, The Poet as wolf. When you think back on “UniSon,” though, it’s not violence you recall, but the thoughtful, mournful reckoning of a man who died with his devils locked inside him. Poetry, jazzy, bluesy music and The Terrors are woven together, fashioning a narrative that is The Poet’s life.
The “UniSon” set is ingenious. There are no moving pieces to distract, just the Pandora’s box of a trunk center stage and a chair off to the side. The showcase is the backdrop with its angular windowed walls that display video, imagery, lights, text. The windows disrupt the sequence of the play and intrude into one’s mind. They signal shifts in mood, punctuate the poetry, and reinforce the notions played out on the stage. Christopher Acebo, Alex Jainchill, and Kaitlyn Pietraszek, respectively scenic designer, lighting designer and video designer, ably demonstrate their individual talents and their ability to craft a coherent whole.
The UNIVERSES rep ensemble together with the OSF players and technical artists have created a very different kind of Oregon Shakespeare Festival performance. It’s not the kind of play where you sit on the edge of your seat, thrumming to war or teasing out the next Shakespearean witticism. This is a play where you sit back and watch and think. The performance captures your mind and your spirit and becomes an intellectual exercise that surfaces beauty and meaning in the cadence of the words. August Wilson’s poetry and the words spoken in rhyme and rhythm redeem The Poet and his terrors are tamed. The words bring forgiveness and inspiration to The Apprentice.
The title “UniSon” is a mash-up of UNIverses (the creators of the show) and August WilSON, but it is more than that. “UniSon” is every mother’s son, every mother’s daughter — every man, every woman. The tropes are universal. It is a play to see more than once; first to understand the pacing and rhythms and again and again to listen to the words, to understand the play of movement, light, sound and meaning. “UniSon” makes you want to read August Wilson’s poetry, think about the words he left unpublished or unwritten, and what words you need to share before it’s too late.
“UniSon” continues in the Angus Bowmer Theatre through Oct. 28. The performance runs about 90 minutes with no intermission. This production of “UniSon” is directed by Robert O’Hara in association with Constanza Romero, executor of August Wilson’s estate, and is supported by a grant from the James F. and Marion L. Miller Foundation.
For more information, including a video of a “UniSon” rehearsal with Steven Sapp, visit www.OSFAshland.org.
Maureen Flanagan Battistella is a freelance writer in Ashland, Oregon and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.