Last Saturday night, the multitalented South Bronx writing and performing ensemble Universes rocked Reynolds Industries Theater in the Bryan Center on Duke University’s West Campus in Durham, NC, with a spirited performance of its signature work, Slanguage, presented as part of the critically acclaimed Duke Performances series. Directed and developed by Jo Bonney, with lighting by Heather N. Hershey and sound design by Darron West, this R-rated performance piece chock-full of inner-city angst combines raw urban poetry, red-hot jazz and hip-hop riffs, and fiery rants on politics into a singular kind of street theater that can be easily transferred onto the stage of a sedate auditorium such as the Reynolds Industries Theater.

Pungently penned in blood, sweat, and tears by Gamal Chasten, Lemon, Flaco Navaja, Mildred Ruiz, and Steven Sapp and performed at Duke on Nov. 5th by Chasten, Ruiz, Sapp, and Ninja, Slanguage afflicted the comfortable and comforted the afflicted of the Bull City. The electrifying performers received a standing ovation at the conclusion of the show. “Up here [onstage],” the colorful quartet raps, “we don’t gang-bang. We bang-slang.” And they bang slang with gusto!

Slanguage was a gritty trip through the scariest parts of the urban jungle. In this one-of-a-kind performance, the mostly white, middle-class Duke Performances audience got hit BAM right between the eyes, with an unexpurgated look at what it is like to be poor, African-American, and Latino and ride a ratty subway train through the mean streets of the miserable ghettos of the South Bronx.

For Triangle theater-goers, Slanguage was a real walk on the wild side, with four fantastic street-smart performers acting as agents provocateurs during a tough-talking travelogue that included such incendiary lines as “If you’re not scaring white people, you are not doing your job?”

Steven Sapp, Gamal Chasten, Ninja, and Mildred Ruiz shared the spotlight and they shared their pain, frustration, joys, and hopes in a powerful performance that will not soon be forgotten. Universes is definitely a distinctive new voice on the American theater scene, and the always eclectic Duke Performances series deserves a hearty round of applause for introducing provocative ensemble to Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill audiences.

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