Robert O'Hara, the developer and director of Oregon Shakespeare Festival's production of "UniSon," has stated that he was initially skeptical about approaching a musical inspired by the poetry of August Wilson, because of the reverence surrounding Wilson's work. Wilson himself was initially only ever interested in being a poet. Poetry was his first love, and he came to play-writing through his work as a poet. In the opening moments of "UniSon", Wilson's own words make it clear that poetry was, for him, the most private part of the public life of the writer. Indeed, much of his drive towards the more public life of the successful playwright came as a result of his desire to see a community of people "gather willingly to bear witness."
The audience members who showed up to willingly bear witness at the Angus Bowmer Theatre for the opening of "UniSon" by Universes have been mightily rewarded for doing so. "UniSon" is a beautiful, poignant, and remarkably original masterwork that deconstructs the life of a luminary poet (Steven Sapp) through the eyes of his apprentice (Asia Mark) and with the help of seven so-called "Terrors" — a group of paranormal entities unleashed from a mysterious box inherited by the apprentice after the poet has passed on. The "Terrors" are, variously, a young seamstress of dubious origin (Christiana Clark); a cuckolded, psychotic butcher (William Ruiz); an aging boxer with an ancestral imperative (Kevin Kenerly); an arch-angelic blacksmith (Rodney Gardiner); a defiled woman turned hunter (Mildred Ruiz-Sapp); the poet's "Momma" (Yvette Monique Clark;) and a soldier from a distant war who was once her inamorato (Jonathan Luke Stevens).
Through each of these riveting characters, a fresh story emerges. Through each, a new and shocking aspect of the poet's life is unearthed. In the process, the golden mentor who the apprentice thought she knew is transmuted into some base metal of human indignity; the sinew, bones and blood that make up the complicated, conflicting, passionate and poetic memories of his tortuous and multifaceted life.
To call "UniSon" a brave work would be a gross understatement. It is a courageous tour de force. Underlying the music and lyrics — which in and of themselves are are spectacular, diving variously into jazz, rap, gospel, hip-hop and soul — is a deeper chord that gives voice to the complexity of the African-American experience in 20th and 21st century America.
O'Hara and Universes (along with Constanza Romero, who was a collaborator on this project) have made a remarkable statement, one which cuts a gorgeous groove through Wilson's words, paying sweet homage to the man, but still manages to come up with an entirely fresh take on the work. August Wilson is the bedrock on which the play is built, but there's not one ounce of pandering or preciousness to be found here. Instead, there is a respect and continuity that can only be achieved when serious artists of exceptional talent come together to make something extraordinary happen.
O'Hara, Universes, and the OSF actors who have participated in "UniSon" can be proud of this work. It honors the legacy of August Wilson while simultaneously creating a production that is electrifying. Staging, costumes, music, lighting, singing, acting and sequencing are all pristine.
As seems to be the standard at OSF this season, this is the kind of work that is hard to quantify in a review; it must be seen, felt, and experienced firsthand. What can be said is that the creative team behind "UniSon" has surpassed the high standard that OSF has set for itself in 2017. In a dazzling season, "UniSon" by Universes is yet another jewel. We can't wait to see what's next.
"UniSon" by Universes runs through Oct. 28 at the Angus Bowmer Theatre. For more information, go to www.osfashland.org or call 800-219-8161.
— Ashland resident Jeffrey Gillespie is a Daily Tidings columnist, arts reviewer and freelance writer. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.