A trio of Broadway Black powerhouses are set to collaborate on an important but forgotten hit. Audra McDonald will return to the theater next spring in the backstage historical tribute Shuffle Along, Or, The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed. Produced by Scott Rudin, the jazz musical will be written and directed by George C. Wolfe and choreographed by tap virtuoso Savion Glover, marking that team’s first collaboration since the 1996 smash, Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk. McDonald will play 1920s star Lottie Gee, with other cast to be announced.
The new production traces the path to unexpected success and the creative legacy of the 1921 all-Black revue Shuffle Along, which was conceived by Flournoy Miller and Aubrey Lyles and featured music by Eubie Blake and Noble Sissle, four celebrated vaudeville performers who met at a 1920 NAACP benefit. As one of the first all-Black Broadway musical hits that was also written by Blacks, Shuffle Along significantly altered the face of the Broadway musical as well as that of New York City. The show opened the door for Black performers and writers on the stage during the period in the 1920s known as the Harlem Renaissance.
Notwithstanding its success, Shuffle Along was not without its challenges. By contemporary standards, it remains problematic: some actors performed in blackface and the score included a song about how lighter-skinned Black women are more attractive than women with darker skin. Shuffle Along arrived in Depression-era New York mired in debt from a pre-Broadway tour, set to open at a remote Broadway house on West 63rd Street. And despite being celebrated vaudeville performers, Miller and Lyles and Sissle and Blake had never performed on Broadway, much less written a musical.
However, Shuffle Along immediately caught on with its jazzy score and exuberant song-and-dance styles. “It was a groundbreaking moment – they were creating these dances in the streets,” Mr. Glover said. “I’m hoping to reignite that sense of exuberance – that sense of joy through expression.” The plot involved two old friends who run against one another for the office of mayor of their town, each promising to hire the other if elected. Once in office, however, the two find themselves at odds. “I’m in love with these characters, and I’m in love with their bravery – brilliant, astonishing, extraordinary artists created a show that redefined rhythm and entertainment and vitality on Broadway,” Mr. Wolfe said. Shuffle Along ran for over 480 performances, helping to launch the careers of such artists as Josephine Baker, Adelaide Hall, Florence Mills, Fredi Washington and Paul Robeson.
Audra McDonald made Tony Awards history in 2014 with her sixth win, becoming the first performer to have taken home Broadway’s highest honor in all four acting categories in which she is eligible. She has won twice as featured actress in a musical, for Carousel in 1994 and Ragtime in 1998; twice for featured actress in a play, in Master Class in 1996 and A Raisin in the Sun in 2004; and for lead actress in a musical in 2012 for The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess. McDonald completed the grand slam last year, winning for lead actress in a play with her transformative portrayal of Billie Holiday in Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar & Grill. Wolfe and Glover both won Tonys for their work on Bring in ‘da Noise, and Wolfe had previously won directing honors for the two-part Angels in America.
Previews for Shuffle Along, Or, The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed begin on March 14, 2016, at the Music Box Theatre, with official opening set for April 21.
We Were There: Sojourners & Her Portmanteau
[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Playwright, educator, opera singer, and Queen, Mfoniso Udofia has two plays running at New York Theatre Workshop. *pause* TWO PLAYS. In the SAME season!?!? *ends congratulatory gasp* Sojourners and Her Portmanteau are performed in repertory, as two chapters of Udofia’s sweeping, nine-part saga, The Ufot Cycle. Admittedly, before researching each show, I didn’t know the definition of either word; and in the spirit of keeping it consistent with the honesty, I didn’t like either play. I loved them.
Minimalism seems to be the name of the game these days. I sat down to a completely black stage, sans a multimedia display lodged on the ceiling at a 45-degree angle. Clutching my all white program and bobbing my head to the ‘70s pop rock pre-show music, I prepared my heart for the story of Sojourners, well at least that was the plan. The stage begins to rotate and we meet Abasiama (Chinasa Ogbuagu) and Ukpong (Hubert Point-Du Jour), Nigerian expatriates sojourning in Houston, Texas with the plan to start a family, earn their degrees, and go back to Nigeria until life happens.
Charming and handsome, Ukpong becomes defined by his leather jacket, shoulder work and shimmy which match the fascination and yearning for freedom that illuminates his eyes every time he talks of peace, protest, and Prince–all shaping his view of 1970s America, and consequently, the American Dream. But does leather compensate for grit? Is a movement or vibe really a panacea for disappointment, aimlessness, and a need to find yourself? Abasiama enters the play pregnant, purposed, and outfitted in pieces of Nigerian garb, grounded in duty showing a stark contrast to Ukpong who floats in desire. What’s lost in your household is found elsewhere, and this is when we start to see, and root for, Abasiama’s transformation from timid to tenacious.
Enter Moxie (Lakisha May), a colorful prostitute turned protector and friend. There is a mutual respect despite great differences between her and Abasiama, with their love for one another creating moments that make you believe in the beauty of humanity. Enter Disciple (Chinaza Uche), another warm and determined hearted immigrant who has come to the United States to study, rounding out the timely additions of love, support, and security when Abasiama needed them the most.
Through and through this is Abasiama’s story and she glows. Her kindness, her sisterhood, her strength, her worthiness, and the realization of her American Dream, guide her decisions—which is the catalyst behind the entire Ufot Cycle.
Her “portmanteau”, or red suitcase, makes a return as 30 years have passed. Abasiama now has two daughters, one raised in America and the other who has come from Nigeria to reconnect with her family.
This is a good moment to mention that each story is informed by the other, but can certainly stand alone on substance, content, and the amazing direction of Ed Sylvanus Iskandar. The staging is exciting and deliberate, while minimal, putting the full focus on the tension and growth to be expected of a family reunited after a substantial amount of time and distance.
Chinasa Ogbuagu returns to the stage, this time as the American-born daughter, Adiagha Ufot, Adepero Oduye as Iniabasi Ekpeyoung (Ukpong and Abasiama’s daughter), and Jenny Jules as the mother, Abasiama Ufot.
Seated on a couch in Adiagha’s small New York Apartment, no amount of preparation readies your mind and spirit to form the words to make up for 30 years of life, connection, and memories missed. We’re taken on a ride of resentment, hurt, love, and forgiveness, as the portmanteau is literally unpacked. We watch the teeter-tottering between offense and defense as one sister tries to assimilate into American culture, and the other attempts, albeit stubbornly, to fall in formation in honoring a family she shares blood with, but little time or tangible history.
It’s powerful to see a story of history and continuing a legacy despite lost time, faulty promises, and difficult choices explored with an all-woman cast as far too often the idea of legacy is framed in patriarchy. Jules admirably takes Abasiama through the fire to heal, to feel, and to fix her family. The narrative allows us to empathize and understand the struggle that comes with upholding family values versus cultivating a space to achieve personal dreams and happiness.
Her Portmanteau (and Sojourners) is written in a way that finds your soul, gently massaging it with humor, while leaving it with very real questions. I’ve never felt a greater need to binge read nine stories and simultaneously study the story of my own family tree. I left changed. I left wrapped in the strength of my mom and my mom’s- mom’s sacrifice. I left pensive and with seeds of future forgiveness planted. I left changed.
For capturing our hearts with wit and with truth. For putting Black women at the center of a poignant narrative. For unapologetically telling a story you haven’t seen told and telling it in the way you want it to be told.
We thank you Mfoniso. We thank you.
Have you seen the #duetplays? Sound off in the comments below![/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]
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.
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