The Poet, played by Steven Sapp, left, and Terror No. 4, The Blacksmith, played by Rodney Gardiner, recall a sin from their past as The Apprentice, Asia Mark, looks on. [Oregon Shakespeare Festival / Jenny Graham]

OSF premieres UNIVERSES' 'UniSon'

When a poet dies, he bequeaths all that he owns to his apprentice. Among these things is a locked chest filled with journals of written accounts of his nightmares, dreams, desires and memories.

Though the poet requests in his will that the chest be destroyed, the apprentice unlocks it and releases the terrors of the poet's life. Tormented by unresolved moments, the poet returns to this world to answer for his actions, accept what he has denied and make peace with his past.

So the drama begins in Oregon Shakespeare Festival's UNIVERSES' "UniSon," a theatrical fusion of theater, music, movement and spoken word inspired by poet August Wilson and directed by Robert O'Hara, according to a press release.

Like the apprentice, UNIVERSES — Steven Sapp, Mildred Ruiz-Sapp and William Ruiz, aka Ninja, in association with Constanza Romero, Wilson's widow — sifted through the late poet's bits of unpublished work looking for similarities. Seven characters emerged as they organized the sometimes coffee- and whiskey-stained pieces of paper from Romero's collection, according to OSF's "Illuminations: A Guide to the 2017 Plays."

"Unison" is not a biographical work about Wilson, but weaves his poetry with UNIVERSES' own ideas about words and music, along with the folk, blues, gospel, rock and funk music of Toshi Reagon and sound designers from Broken Chord Collective, to create this new musical opening Sunday, April 23, in the Angus Bowmer Theatre at OSF.

Sapp says it is "important to know when Wilson is speaking and when UNIVERSES is speaking." Ninja adds that he "writes what needs to be written, when it needs to be written," which is sometimes rap lyrics, sometimes other styles.

The cast of "UniSon" features Sapp as The Poet; Asia Mark as The Apprentice; Christiana Clark as Terror No. 1, The Seamstress; Ninja as Terror No. 2, The Butcher; Kevin Kenerly as Terror No. 3, The Boxer; Rodney Gardiner as Terror No. 4, The Blacksmith; Ruiz-Sapp as Terror No. 5, The Hunter; Yvette Monique Clark as Terror No. 6, Momma; and Jonathan Luke Stevens as Terror No. 7, The Soldier.

"UniSon" provides a glimpse of some little-seen work and could help introduce new audiences to this titan of American theater.

“We’re coming from a different generation,” Ruiz-Sapp says in a Portland Monthly interview with Rebecca Jacobson. “So we wanted to lift it out of August’s timeline and bring it a generation forward.”

"UniSon" marks the return of OSF's resident ensemble, UNIVERSES. Its musical "Party People," an American Revolutions commission that premiered in 2012 at OSF, journeyed from Ashland to Berkeley Repertory Theatre to The Public Theater in New York City.

Frederick August Kittel declared himself a poet at age 20, changing his name to August Wilson, consciously discarding his white father's history for the lineage of his African-American mother. His poems appeared in two magazines: Black World and Black Lines. Like the plays that would follow, Wilson's poetry was a reflection of the people who surrounded him, an expression of their joy and their troubles, according to OSF's "Illuminations."

Wilson established himself as a playwright on the national scale in 1981 when "Ma Rainey's Black Bottom" was accepted by Eugene O'Neill Theater Center's National Playwrights Conference. Dean of Yale Drama School Lloyd Richards directed the play at Yale Repertory Theatre and then the Broadway production. It ran for 275 performances.

Wilson's "Fences," "Joe Turner's Come and Gone" and "The Piano Lesson" would soon come to Broadway. "Fences" won Wilson a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award; "The Piano Lesson" won a Pulitzer.

By 1990, Wilson was intent on writing a play about African-American life for each decade of the 20th century. That same year, he moved to Seattle with costume designer Romero, who later would become his wife.

“Issues of life and death were always a central theme in August's work," Romero says in OSF's press release. "In their own style, UNIVERSES has tapped in to this ‘Wilsonian’ motif, but they have taken it to a brand new sphere, a world of dance, music, performance, spoken word and mystical theatricality. I have enjoyed sitting through their rehearsals, humming along to a few of the songs, while they are enveloped in the process of invention. This discovery, this journey to the unknown, is what I truly respect of UNIVERSES. And, I must say that if August were here with me at OSF, he would say he was proud to have inspired these artists to arrive at this brand new work, 'UniSon.'”

Scenic design for "Unison" is by Christopher Acebo, costumes by Dede M. Ayite, lighting by Alex Jainchill and video design is by Kaitlyn Pietras. Joan Herrington is dramaturg, and U. Jonathan Toppo is fight director.

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