Photos by Felix Kunze @Felixkunze
Creative Direction & Produced by Dual Phocus Productions @dual.phocus
Hair & Clothing Stylist: Chloe Chada’ @quintessentially_chloe
MUA: William Bob Scott @bobscott200
For many, the love of theatre begins with a visual. A performance of some sort, the sparkling twinkle that reflects off a bedazzled costume, a set piece that you just know in your heart you should be walking on, or maybe even a tune with such a striking melody that you can’t get it out of your head. Once it’s planted there, there’s usually no turning back. No forgetting that moment of pure joy and satisfaction in knowing that one day it’ll be you on that stage or you helping to make that kind of magic happen.
Yes, for some, the dream may change at some point but they’ll never forget their initiation. It’s a part of them. However, there are those that push forward through it all. They train and condition themselves to stay on the path and ultimately run the course, hoping to break record time in the relay race of Broadway, catching up to the one in front of them stretching and reaching for the baton. A baton that is on fire. A baton so hot that only a few can hold it, it’s that hot. There’s an insane amount of work to do to even get the chance to grab it but even more work and efforts to hold on to it but also an extreme honor at the same time.
I had the chance to talk with four of the 2016 Tony Award nominees and a previous Tony Award winner about their journey and what it takes to pass and receive the Broadway Black torch. Out of the 18 African-American nominees we chose to talk with Brandon Victor Dixon, (Best Feature Actor in a Musical for Shuffle Along) Saycon Sengbloh (Best Featured Actress in a Play for Eclipsed) , Pascale Armand, (Best Featured Actress in a Play for Eclipsed, Adrienne Warren (Best Featured Actress in a Musical for Shuffle Along) and the torch bearer and trailblazer LaChanze (2006 Tony Award-winner. Best Leading Actress in a Musical for the original mounting of The Color Purple), as they also took part in an exclusive photo shoot with acclaimed photographer Felix Kunze. Each one had some very inspiring and encouraging words to say that I think truly capture what it means to be a part of the Broadway Black community
“We all [Tony Award Winners], we always assume that the next year we’ll get a chance to pass the baton to the next person. I’ve always thought of it as a rite of passage. An acknowledgment that you’re including someone else into the realm of winners or people who are fortunate enough to receive this wonderful accolade. I’ve always imagined it would be sort of a tradition to do that. Something I’ve always thought that only people who’ve won Tonys can really do, pass the torch. There have been so few people of color who’ve won in my category and in the history since the Tonys began. It just feels right to be able to do that this year. I’d tell the nominees, first, sleep. As much as you can, sleep. Also, enjoy yourself, enjoy the moment. Don’t let anything slip by. Do it all. You’ll be able to look back and be glad that you did it.” – LaChanze
“This season is classic and historic. I’m feeling very excited. Excited for myself, As well as to see how Broadway Black is growing. I was born and raised in Atlanta. My mom is American and my Dad is from Libera. Hearing my Dad’s accent or my sister’s accent always penetrated me even though I always spoke with my American accent. So when it was time to call on the Liberian side for this show [Eclipsed], I said “What? when has anyone ever asked me to do that?” So, I welcomed the challenge. That’s what you always have to do. “ – Saycon Sengbloh
“Everyone who knows me knows the struggle has been long and hard. I’ve been at it for a second. I never thought for the longest time that it was a matter of ‘when’ and not ‘if,’ like some people. I’ve just been hustling and hoofing it for so long. I never even thought about the Tonys. I wanted to work. For all the times young Pascale sat in a puddle crying thinking “I’m going to find a corporate America job, get my benefits,” and all that. I’d tell her, “pick yourself up, dust yourself off, dry all the tears, and keep it at. It’s going to happen you just have to be patient. Wait for it. It’s coming.” There had been so many times where I didn’t know that and was so close to throwing it all away. Then I would look at a student loan bill and think I didn’t pay all this money to quit now.” – Pascale Armand
“It’s a big year. It’s exciting to be nominated. It’s a wonderful year. Extraordinary talent. And I’m glad it’s a diverse body of storytelling and talent that’s on display because these really are my people. My boys, my people, my friends. We’re here! I would go crazy if Adrienne Warren won but I’ll go ham if Renee wins. Leslie’s my boy. Lin’s my boy. It’s just a celebratory time. [Being here] is icing on the cake. We have wonderful shows that are sold out. Broadway is doing really well.” – Brandon Victor Dixon
“I’m so grateful for the show [Shuffle Along] and the story we’re telling. How blessed we are to be able to tell this story, in this way, with these people. We come to work every day and we realize that we have a story to tell to represent these people who have deserved recognition for so many years and now they’re finally getting it. That’s the best gift I could possibly ever get. I’m so proud of everyone that’s a part of this amazing season.” – Adrienne Warren
There’s No One Like Ntozake Shange, Part 1: Wild Beauties
In this multi-part series, Broadway Black interviews Poet Ntozake Shange.
The Legendary Blue Note Jazz Club located in NYC’s Greenwich Village was buzzing in anticipation of Ntozake Shange’s performance of Wild Beauties. Before the start of the show, I interview Shange’s friends, family, and long time fans, asking them “what they were most looking forward to?”
Although hard to believe, it has been over 40 years since the creation of Shange’s seminal work for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf. Blue Note audience member’s stories span decades; set in New York City, The Bay Area and every town or city in between.
They recall the moments they felt visible in her poetry. They blush as they confess they performed in local productions of For colored girls as lady in red, lady in green or other women in the play. They smile reciting lines from sechita, pyramid and “no more love poems #1. #2, #3 & #4.” They are nostalgic as they tell me about seeing Shange’s work on and off Broadway. They compare the play to the 1982 PBS American Playhouse production, to the Tyler Perry Film with strong opinions about each iteration. Each felt ownership and protective of Shange’s work. Each came to see the artist whose work changed their lives.
At the end of their testimony, there is a pause. Their unending love for Shange is coupled with their concerns for her. I disclose I am writing about the performance and as a result, many ask me with caution in their eyes, about her health.
Is she healthy (enough to do this)? Is she too old to do this? Will this be her last performance?
These questions are caring and well meaning yet, problematic; heavily anchored in western cosmologies about health and our fears of a changing body. I graciously shift the conversation, encouraging them to relax and enjoy the show. As a journalist, I understand it is important to address these curiosities as it relates to Shange’s most recent performance and the legacy of her work.
I had the pleasure to sit with Shange the morning of her Blue Note performance. She candidly discusses her health, her body and her excitement to be performing again since recovering from stroke related medical complications over the last decade. It’s no secret that stroke rehabilitation has been an important part of recovery, as she shared the successes and setbacks on her journey towards wellness. “I went through a period where I didn’t write. I didn’t perform. I concentrated on my physical rehabilitation. I had to learn how to hold things, how to sit up how to stand.”
She is thrilled with the progress she continues to make in rehab. Shange who is a gorgeous 68-year-old woman glows when she talks about dancing. She approaches her physical therapy as if it were a movement workshop often asking her cab drivers to play Latin music and dances in the back seat as she rides.
In our conversation, she strikes me as a fiercely independent woman. She is a Black artist who takes pride in the craft of her poetry. Shange reluctantly depends on speech recognition software to write poetry as the software seeks to not only auto correct but colonize the beauty of black phraseology that is the essence of her work.
Her writing uses a Black talk that dances like jazz telling stories of the diaspora. Her work is the embodiment of Blackness moving in the air to manifest emotion, uniquely her own and there is no one on earth who can replicate. Software certainly can’t do what Shange can do and this is a source of her frustration.
Shange tells me Maya Angelou sent her children’s books to read as she regained her speech. She tells me about times when walking, moving and certainly dancing was impossible. How getting a typewriter helped her feel more connected to her work. She still has poems to write and desires this connection to her words.
She shares that rehearsals are going well and how she loves working with musicians William “Spaceman” Patterson, Michael Raye and Patmore Lewis. She is ecstatic to be back on stage in front of audiences. This is the conversation I am recalling in my mind as audience members whisper to me about her health. This is the reason I decline to speculate, I figure Shange would do what Shange came to do. Perform poems. Dance. Take Names.
The return to the stage at Blue Note feels like a homecoming for Shange. She explains ” I began working in night clubs with musicians reading my poetry. That is how for colored girls started. I feel like it’s the beginning again.”
At the start of the night, the announcer welcomes the audience to Blue Note, painfully mispronouncing her name. The audience rumbled, rolling their eyes in her defense while yelling “Its N-to-ZAH-kee SHAHNG-gay. Her name is N-to-ZAH-kee SHAHNG-ga!” said many voices from neighboring tables.
When the musicians William “Spaceman” Patterson & Michael Raye take the stage the audience tosses their annoyance aside and settles in for the show. Shange soon followed. The audience gives a standing ovation before she utters a word.
She came out swinging. Normally Shange likes to ease audiences into her work offering safety at the start of her sets but she had something to say about PRIDE. Her opening poem, ODE TO ORLANDO is about the Orlando Night Club Tragedy. In June 2016, 49 people were killed and 58 wounded due to hate a crime inside Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida. Shange lyrically takes audiences to the inside of Pulse nightclub where the black and brown queer bodies gather to celebrate Pride month. Her poem collages stories of her daughter who could’ve been there but wasn’t there. This poem is timely and tender, embracing the spirit of Pride season while not forgetting the need for LGBTQ liberation all year around.
She shares a poem titled LOOSENING STRINGS, OR GIVE ME AN “A”. Shange, a self-described Black girl who grew up listening to “white boys who sang weird harmonies that all sound the same” on the radio states “Yes, Eric Clapton made me want to have a child named Layla.” She has a sense of humor. The audience laughs in tune with her confessions.
Shange like a bandleader of a jazz orchestra moves us through experiences that are terrifying and soft. In THERE ARE NO MARKERS, she reminds us of the brutal reality of Blackness in America. She draws the audience into her world with I had five nose rings.
I had five nose rings
a gold circle
a silver circle
& a half moon
without these I am unarmed
not ready for arbitrary violence
There is no question that Shange captivates audiences. Her poetry, her presence her aura is magnetic. We have heard her words in cafes in local theaters, on Broadway and in Hollywood performed by some of the greatest Black actresses of all time, yet there is nothing like hearing Shange perform her own work. She is beautiful and particular. It is this closeness with her, her words, her journey that audiences are still yearning for 40 years after for colored girls took Broadway by storm at the Booth Theatre in NYC.
Full Performance: Amber Riley’s 1+1 Will Leave You Speechless
[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]A few weeks back we shared a snippet of Amber Riley singing a cover of Beyonce’s 1+1. Now the full version of that video has arrived and is sure to take your breath away.
For those unaware of Amber Riley, she starred as Mercedes Jones, the “larger than life” powerhouse singer on the hit Fox show Glee for 7 seasons. Her performance on the show brought her much acclaim, earning her a Screen Actors Guild Award and several nominations from the NAACP Awards and Teen Choice Awards. Her career continued to blossom and in 2016, she played the legendary role of “Addaperle” in the NBC live version of The Wiz. From there she would go on to play the role of “Effie White” in Dreamgirls, at the Savoy theatre in London’s West End. She recently won the Laurence Olivier Award for Best Actress in a Musical at the 2017 Olivier Awards for her role.
Video provided by 42 Seven Productions #WestEndUnplugged[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_facebook][vc_tweetmeme share_via=”broadwayblack”][/vc_column][/vc_row]
Exclusive: Denée Benton and Okieriete Onaodowan Talk Great Comet, Diversity & Artivism
Two Black actors leading a show that encourages inclusive casting and ignores gender norms set in Moscow in 1812. How “non-traditional.” But is it really?
Benton, who plays Natasha with whimsical naïveté, has the role of her dreams in her Broadway debut further inspired by her never having to deny her Blackness to do it.
“I remember having my hair texture was very important to [the creative team] and important to me. I was like, ‘I couldn’t let this moment pass by for a Black woman in all of her Blackness being Natasha.’ I thought it was just very important but the fact that there’s a creative team that shares the consciousness and none of them are people of color, it’s just… it was incredible to me.”
This same consciousness of the creative team was also very key throughout her audition process. Having auditioned previously for director Rachel Chavin and writer Dave Malloy, any initial hesitations about going out for Great Comet dissipated once she got her hands on the material and fell in love with the music and her character, adding “there was synergy and everything was right and that’s when I knew it was mine.”
On the other hand, Onaodowan was quite busy playing the tailor-turned-spy Hercules Mulligan and soft-spoken James Madison in Broadway’s hit Hamilton when he received the call. “Rachel called on my second to last show of Hamilton. We were talking about the Ghostlight Project and she told me, ‘Actually I want you to be Pierre.’
“I learned ‘Dust and Ashes’ and I played some for the producers and then I worked with a piano teacher. The main thing was to make sure I could play the piano.” Now in early stages of preparations, Onaodowan commits to getting the technicalities and nuances of Pierre out of the way before deep-diving into his story. We look forward to seeing “Oak” on stage again, but this time on 45th street, the same street declared “Broadway Black Street” during the 2015-2016 season where The Great Comet plays nightly.
“It’s just understanding. Broadway is in a weird spot because there’s only so many seats you can sell, and it’s a risk taking on something that may be culturally relevant or moving the needle along; but again, it’s business. It’s financially making your money back and making a profit.”
He adds the best part of the success from Hamilton isn’t its diversity, per say, but that Hamilton is “terribly profitable.” That “these people and this music, this style/genre of music is profitable so, hopefully, producers say ‘Hey I can make a dollar.’”
Similarly, Denée chimes in: “What I found is you have a lot of well-meaning creative teams who are liberal people, who have good hearts but haven’t necessarily done the research in what it means to break a system that was based on systematic racism.” That said, it will take creative teams like those of The Great Comet to step outside of the box, for there to ever be any true progress for actors of color.
Onaodowan is also aware it doesn’t solely fall on those who make the shows, but those who see the shows. “[Ticket-holders] buy tickets. If you see a show that is diverse, even if you’re not crazy about it, go out and support it because you’re saying ‘I support diverse theatre and there’s an avenue for this,’ it can be profitable.”
Still, both actors maintain hope for the future; hopefully, one that shines as bright as the light fixture in the finale of The Great Comet.
With the way social media has taken off, it allows some of our favorite stars to interact with fans about upcoming projects or simply enlighten them about issues that affect society, helping them stay optimistic and outspoken. It’s “artivism,” as the BAC calls it. Something both Benton and Onaodowan haven’t taken lightly. Benton, this past Black History Month, launched what she calls the “Black Princess Project” to highlight Black royalty that we otherwise wouldn’t have learned.
“That’s the only reason fame matters, because you have such a wide platform and, nowadays, if they won’t teach it in our history books, you can just post it and I like that. For me, it’s important. This would all start to feel meaningless if I couldn’t use [my platform] to change something or say something.”
As the son of Nigerian immigrants, Onaodowan has remained outspoken about immigration rights, giving the keynote address to a crowd of new citizens naturalized in New York City last September.
He also stresses the importance of artists using their voices to uplift communities and speak out about what matters. “I think artists do have a [civic] responsibility at some point. I always say as artists, you are responsible. If you have that platform you are responsible for what you put out there, and as much as you would love to just do your art, when you reach a certain level there’s [sic] certain things that come with your job.
“I don’t know how to write grants or run a non-for-profit or anything like that. But, in my lane, what I can do is use this platform of how many thousand people listen to me to try to put something positive out in my own personal way. It’s important to use your platform to say something because people listen.”
Okieriete “Oak” Onaodowan joins Denée Benton in Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 on July 3rd.
For tickets, follow the Great Comet.
Darnell Lamont Walker: After Fences.
Our fathers, when they’ve seen all they care to see of this world, find solace in their doing better for their children than their fathers did for them, and the children are running laps inside a fence, figuring out how to hold them accountable for their wrongdoings and simultaneously forgive them because we know they’ve given their best.
My father told me another man, a man he respected, was my grandfather because, at 16, his father stopped being his dad. I was 16 when my grandmother corrected the narrative. Before my father was my father he was a kid who’d cry at the simplest things, my aunt says. My father says he became a man when he caught his father beating the woman who’d become my grandmother, and my father beat him. That man no longer had a son, according to my father.
So much of my dad pours out of me when I’m talking to my son and I’ve given up fighting those parts of him; those parts I hated when I was a kid but able to recognize emotional stunting and an inability to be vulnerable. I want to be a good father. I don’t want to be a good father just in relation to my mine. Just good for goodness sake.
The better parts of my father I’m mixing with the better parts of me. I’ve planted the broken parts of him in my empty spaces and giving him a second chance at growing with me. I feel whole, and maybe my wholeness makes him better.
You save the few things that didn’t burn in the fire, that didn’t get crushed under the force, that didn’t drown when he held them under, and you bring the rest to the ground. You always build it better the second time around.
-Darnell Lamont Walker
Our Story in 2 Plays for 1 Price: Mfoniso Udofia’s Sojourners & Her Portmanteau
Last winter, we reported on Sojourners by playwright Mfoniso Udofia, a new play about a Nigerian family who has come to America with the goal of earning a college education, starting a family, and returning to Nigeria. But not without the twists and turns that come along with every plan that seems straightforward.
Thanks to New York Theatre Workshop, we get to relive this moment and continue the dialogue, decades later, with Her Portmanteau. Performed in repertory, these two chapters of Udofia’s sweeping, nine-part saga, The Ufot Cycle, chronicle the triumphs and losses of the tenacious matriarch of a Nigerian family.
Ed Sylvanus Iskandar directs the two-part story in association with The Playwrights Realm, who premiered Sojourners last winter in a limited engagement world premiere production. Her Portmanteau also received the 2016 Edgerton Foundation New Play Award grant.
As if that wasn’t enough to get excited about, we have an exclusive deal for our Broadway Black readers!
Our Story in 2 Plays for 1 Price!
Yes. That’s two shows for one price! The discount code BWYBLACK will take 50% off tickets to ANY performance(s) if purchased by May 15th!
Go ahead and grab your tickets. We have ours!
Sojourners and Her Portmanteau plays at NYTW until June 4th.
Exclusive Behind The Scenes: Morgan James, Shoshana Bean, & Alex Newell Rock Jesus Christ Superstar Concert
Alex Newell played “Mary” in a one night only concert of Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Jesus Christ Superstar, produced by Torya Beard, Morgan James, and Richard Amelius, Monday, at Highline Ballroon at 8:00PM (doors open at 6:00PM).
Illuminating the transcendent power of the human spirit, the Superstar Concert starred Broadway favorites Morgan James (Motown: The Musical, Godspell) as “Jesus” and Shoshana Bean (Hairspray, Wicked) as “Judas.”
Speaking to the genius of the cross-gender casting, James said:
Jesus Christ Superstar has always been one of my favorite shows, favorite scores; and I always wanted to know what it would be like to hear my favorite voices sing those roles. In fact, I had a dream about it and woke up desperate to make it happen.
And it happened. Some of the best and brightest voices you’ll ever have the pleasure of hearing. So, just imagine hearing them all together. We were scooped away on a journey. View our exclusives of the evening below.
All photos courtesy of ©Kevin Thomas Garcia
Big Beat Records recording artist Alex Newell is best known for playing the transgender student Wade “Unique” Adams on the Fox musical series Glee. As a singer, Newell released tracks with Clean Bandit, Blonde and The Knocks. “This Ain’t Over” is the first track on his 2016 debut EP entitled POWER. We’re excited to see his take on Mary in this highly anticipated production following a series of events so universally known.
Morgan James (Jesus) Original Broadway Casts: Motown: The Musical, Godspell (“Turn Back O’ Man”), Wonderland, The Addams Family. On Epic Records: debut studio album of original soul music entitled “Hunter”; and live Nina Simone tribute album, “Morgan James Live.”
Shoshana Bean (Judas) Her independent solo releases have topped the iTunes R&B and Blues charts in the US and the UK in peak positions 5, 3 and #1 with the release of her latest EP Shadows to Light. Shoshana is a veteran of the Broadway stage having debuted in the original cast of Hairspray and starred as the very first replacement for Elphaba, the green-skinned witch, in Wicked.
The cast of 13 singers performed the complete score, with accompaniment by a 5-piece band. directed by Richard Amelius and musically directed by Julie McBride will take on musical direction.
are Tony Award winner Debbie Gravitte as Caiaphas, Tony Award nominee Orfeh as Pontius Pilate, Pearl Sun as Peter, Bryonha Marie Parham as Annas, Shayna Steele as Simon, Ellyn Marsh, Sydney Morton, Pearl Sun, and Jasmin Walker as Apostles, Crowd, Lepers, etc., and Ann Harada as King Herod.
Check out our experience from last night below! We had a blast with exclusive access backstage stage brought to you by Drew Shade!
— Broadway Black (@BroadwayBlack) January 17, 2017
— Broadway Black (@BroadwayBlack) January 17, 2017
— Broadway Black (@BroadwayBlack) January 17, 2017
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