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The Best Protest Songs & Civil Rights Anthems On & Off-Broadway

Marcus Scott

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Unless you were under a rock, we hope you were tuned into the livestream video broadcast of the unforgettable and star-studded Broadway For Black Lives Matter benefit concert that took place Monday night, Aug. 1, in the Roone Arledge Auditorium at Columbia University’s Alfred Lerner Hall. The night guaranteed a bountiful feast of headlines and hashtags. Undoubtedly, this was due to introductions from Tony-winning Broadway royalty Cynthia Ervio, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Audra McDonald, Jeanine Tesori and Alex Sharp, for instance, or performances from the 2016 cast of the Encores! Off-Center concert series revival of Elizabeth Swados’ Runaways, nine-time Grammy Award nominee Ledisi, Tony Award winner Billy Porter, and four-time Grammy Award winner India.Arie and Broadway Inspirational Voices (with original arrangements by Tony nominee Michael McElroy). However, the big take away from the night was the show’s themes of inclusion, cross cultural pollination and intersectionality.

 

This could be more evident in many of the night’s performances. Whether it was the rhythmic spoken word of Daniel J. Watts addressing “Columbusing” and cultural appropriation, or the poetry of Daniel Beaty, which challenged social justice warriors to rise up while name-checking victims of police brutality—Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Alton Sterling, Tamir Rice and the thousands who have now become “future ancestors”—, speakers had one thing in mind: To bring spark a fire and conjure incentive to keep protesting and progressing.

 

However revolutions can’t be won alone and as Frank Roberts, a professor at New York University emphasized, “Black Lives Matter is an intersectional movement.” It is also an artistic moment and one of the most powerful arts is song. Be it anthems like Crystal Monee Hall’s rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine,” Ledisi’s interpretation of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” Billy Porter’s startling cover of Tony Bennet’s “Take The Moment” or India.Arie’s own “Breathe,” audiences noticed that protests come in many sounds and colors. American musical theatre also has its fair share of protest songs and civil rights anthems, they just may not be as well known, so here’s a list of the best that graced stages on Broadway and off.

 

“The Scottsboro Boys” (The Scottsboro Boys, 2010)

Kander & Ebb have an arsenal of protest songs, but they are probably not as scathing as the eponymous musical number in The Scottsboro Boys that ends the show on a rather anticlimax note. Nudged to do a cakewalk by The Interlocutor, the host of a minstrel show, the men wipe off their make-up in defiance and walk off stage. What’s even more remarkable is the inclusion of a young lady (until now thought to be a mute character) is revealed to be Rosa Parks. When asked to move to the back of the bus to make room for a white passenger, she refuses promptly. You know what happens next. A close second would be: “Go Back Home.”

 

“Listen!” (from The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin, 2000)

A musical womanist exposé on racism and sexism, Kirsten Childs’s breakthrough The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin, an ode to self-acceptance and independence, is encapsulated in the blistering defiance of the 11 o’clock number, “Listen!” Through accommodating and pleasing everyone, the smiling and docile Viveca Stanton speaks up.

“I’m Here” (from The Color Purple, 2005)

Five years after LaChanze originated the role of Viveca Stanton at off-Broadway’s Playwright’s Horizons, she originated the role of Celie in the Broadway production of The Color Purple and took home a Tony award for Best Actress (Her musical catalogue is enviable!). Naturally, Cythnia Erivo had some big shoes to fill in the Broadway revival, especially on the 11 o’clock number, “I’m Here.” The song captures a black woman, considered ugly and insignificant, feeling a deep love for herself for the first time.

 

“Back To Before” (Ragtime, 1998)

While Audra McDonald made history with the original Broadway production of Ragtime, becoming a three-time Tony Award winner by age 28 (she would win three more), the musical is also remembered for its astonishing score, particularly Marin Mazie’s second act number “Back To Before.” The song is about a bourgeoisie white woman coming to terms with the times and choosing to change with it, understanding that she cannot sit idle while others—in this case, segregated black people—are suffering.

 

 

“I Am What I Am” (La Cage aux Folles, 1983)

Jerry Herman is one of the most underrated songwriters for this reason: “I Am What I Am,” Albin’s act-one finale. Written by two openly gay men, La Cage aux Folles is revolutionary in many ways, but with this protest song meets torch ballad, a gay man declares that he is proud of who he is and refuses to change for anyone, even his partner. Keep in mind, the first AIDS/HIV cases in the U.S. were reported as early as 1981.

 

 

“Keys/It’s Alright” (Passing Strange, 2008)

Stew’s Tony-winning Künstlerroman rock ‘n roll masterpiece about a young African American’s artistic journey of self-discovery has a salvo of protest songs and gut-wrenching anthems, but none of them match the sonic blast of “Keys/It’s Alright.” About a black man finding friends and a home away from home, the song serves as an anthem for lost souls looking for community.

 

“Being Good Isn’t Enough” (Hallelujah, Baby!; 1966)

Hallelujah, Baby!, the show that made Leslie Uggams an A-list theater diva, is best remembered for the act-one finale, “Being Good…” which was re-recorded by another diva, Barbara Streisand. Following an ambitious young black woman who seeks stardom, through song, she decides to work twice as hard as everyone else to make her dreams come true. Sound familiar?

 

“Seasons of Love” (Rent, 1996)

The refrain “Five hundred twenty-five thousand, six hundred minutes” in Jonathan Larson’s Rent asks the listeners what the appropriate way to calculate the value of a year in human life is. Given the subject matter and the fact that it is sung by artists in the show, “Seasons of Love” rings closer to home in a post-BLM world.

 

“Defying Gravity” (Wicked, 2003)

The biggest song in Broadway’s biggest musical, “Defying Gravity” finds the singer realizing she must do what’s best for her and that she must not let anyone hold her down.

“We Gotta Get out of This Place” (Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, 2014)

By the time Beautiful: The Carole King Musical made it to Broadway, “We Got To Get Out Of This Place” was already registered in The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s 500 Songs that Shaped Rock and Roll list. Nevertheless, while the song is about the Vietnam War, it feels very appropriate for what has been happening Flint, MI; Baton Rouge, LA; Baltimore, MD; and Ferguson, MO.

 

“Zombie” (Fela!, 2010)

Typical of jukebox musicals, touchstones like Fela Kuti’s 1976 Afrobeat smash “Zombie” were well known to black music listeners before it came to Broadway. In Fela!, the rough-and-rowdy revue inspired by the musician, the song—which described and attacked the methods of the Nigerian military—feels somewhat adjacent to methods taken in police criminalization cases.

 

“What’s Going On?” (Motown: The Musical, 2013)

In Motown, Marvin Gaye’s seminal smash hit “What’s Going On?” gets performed after a medley of The Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion (That’s What the World Is Today)” and Edwin Starr’s “War,” creating a kind of catharsis that reminds us that work still needs to be done.

 

“My Shot” (Hamilton, 2015)

One must admit, the first twenty minutes of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton are perhaps unparalleled by any other musical and that’s because of the relentless wordplay of “My Shot.” In the song, the protagonist electrifies other young revolutionaries with his rhetoric, but also speaks about his disillusionment with the U.K. while dreaming of laying down his lives for a better future. This is basically the musical theatre equivalent of the Black Lives Matter anthem.

 

“Run and Tell That” (Hairspray, 2002)

From “Welcome to the 60’s” and “Big, Blonde and Beautiful” in act one to “Without Love,” “I Know Where I’ve Been,” “You Can’t Stop the Beat” in the second act, the musical score of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman’s Hairspray is chock-full of protest songs and civil rights anthems galore. But none are as multifaceted as “Run and Tell That.” The R&B number is a black pride hymn, and speaks to the veracities related with being marginalized by a white society.

 

“Hair” (Hair, 1968)

Sharing the same name as the musical, very few songs are as catchy or as memorable as “Hair”—yeah, that includes favorites like “Aquarius,” “Easy To Be Hard,” “Good Morning Starshine” and even “The Flesh Failures (Let the Sunshine In).” All of the show’s themes come together—race, class, nudity and sexual freedom, pacifism and environmentalism—and all of it through is the texture, length, color and style of hair. It’s an intersectional anthem and one that embraces natural hair!

 

“The Song of Purple Summer” (from Spring Awakening, 2006)

The kids are not all right in Spring Awakening, but “the seeds are already being planted” for an emerging liberal minded, progressive generation and the puritanical viewpoints of adults will one day be a thing of the past.

 

“Everybody Rejoice/A Brand New Day” (The Wiz, 1975)

There are so many great songs in Charlie Smalls’ The Wiz and it’s hard to choose which one, given the emotional complexity in songs like “Believe in Yourself” and “Home,” or the just keep swimming feeling of “Ease on Down the Road.” But “Everybody Rejoice/A Brand New Day” is a celebration song, a dance of freedom underscored by African rhythms and gospel horns. Freedom never sounded so exhilarating.

 

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Events and Happenings

10th Annual August Wilson Monologue Competition Sets a Date!

Andrew Shade

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August Wilson 1945 – 2005
August Wilson 1945 – 2005

The best monologue competition for high school students, in our opinion, has set a date for its 10th anniversary. The August Wilson Monologue Competition, founded by Kenny Leon & Todd Kreidler is a free arts education program, a celebration of the words of the playwright August Wilson, inspiring high school students to find and express themselves through theatre. It will take place on Monday, May 7, 2018, 7 pm, at where else?, The August Wilson Theater (245 W 52nd St, New York, NY 10019). The event is free & open to the public.

Produced in collaboration between Kenny Leon’s True Colors Theatre Company and Jujamcyn Theaters. The program is now in twelve cities nationwide, including Atlanta, Boston, Buffalo, Chicago, Los Angeles, New Haven, New York, Pittsburgh, Portland, Seattle, Dallas and Greensboro, North Carolina.

“The competition aims to expose a new generation of creative minds to the life’s work and artistic legacy of this seminal American playwright. Program participants in cities across the country encounter Wilson’s 10-play cycle and receive coaching from teaching artists as they prepare monologues for local, citywide, and national competitions.”

The first place winner will receive a $3,000 cash prize, the runner-up a $2,000 cash prize, and third place a $1,000 cash prize. Each of the winners will also become eligible for college scholarship opportunities, and all finalists receive the gift of TCG’s Century Cycle collection.

A panel of celebrity judges will evaluate the competitors and select a winner. The evening will also include performances by well-known Wilsonian veterans and special musical guests. Among those who have previously lent their support as performers, judges and guests are Phylicia Rashad, Russell Hornsby, Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Guy Davis, Lynda Gravatt, Keith Randolph Smith, Tamara Tunie, Katori Hall, Maurice Hines, Chris Chalk, LaTanya Richardson, Heather Alicia Simms, Pauletta Washington, and Mykelti Williamson, among others. In the past, students have had the opportunity to spend time with other prominent Broadway performers over the course of the weekend, including Denzel Washington.

 

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Events and Happenings

Alex Newell & Cynthia Erivo Get AmplifiED! for Urban Arts Partnership’s 2018 Benefit Gala

Andrew Shade

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Alex Newell & Cynthia Erivo
Alex Newell & Cynthia Erivo

On Monday, April 16, 2018, Mike Yard and Emmy Award-winning actor Rory Albanese will co-host the Urban Arts Partnership 2018 Benefit titled AmplifiED at the Ziegfeld Ballroom (141 West 54th Street). The event will raise money to help combat injustices found in public education. Performances will include headliners Alex Newell (Once on this Island) & Tony Award winner Cynthia Erivo  (The Color Purple) with UAP Artistic Board member Michael Kenneth Williams (Boardwalk Empire, The Wire) among the honorees. Marissa Shorenstein (President AT&T Northeast Region) & Niclas Nagler (UAP Board Member) will be honored, as well.

“UAP is a leading non-profit education organization that uses arts-integrated education programs and works to improve the lives of students of 100 low-income schools across New York and Los Angeles.”

Among the special guests, Danielle Brooks (The Color Purple, OITNB), Darryl “D.M.C.” McDaniels of Run-D.M.C., Tracie Thoms (Falsettos, Rent), Jenna Ushkowitz (Waitress), Amir Arison (The Blacklist), Jesse Eisenberg (The Social Network), Cecily Strong (SNL), Jillian Jacobs, Diane Neal (Law and Order: SVU), Sadat X, & Geoffrey Arend.

We Were There: Pipeline at Lincoln Center

We real cool. We Left school. We Lurk late. We Strike straight. We Sing sin. We Thin gin. We Jazz June. We Die soon. In 1960 Pulitzer Prize winner Gwendolyn Brooks’ haunting crescendo from innocence to downfall, “We Real Cool,” was published by Harpers.

Tickets begin at $750 & run upwards to $50,000 Table Packages

Cocktails begin at 6 pm with dinner at 7 pm, & DJ Dance Set ending out the night.

For tickets and more information, visit UrbanArts.org

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Events and Happenings

Where You Want To Be! 5th Annual The New Black Fest at The Lark

Andrew Shade

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Playwright France-Luce Benson, who will have her work presented during The New Black Fest at The Lark Photo: francelucebenson.com

The New Black Fest at The Lark is here! The 5th annual theatre festival founded by J. Holtham, Jocelyn Prince, & Keith Josef Adkins will take place April 9th – 13th, 2018. The New Black Fest is a gathering of artists, thinkers, activists, and audiences who are dedicated to stretching, interrogating and uplifting the Black aesthetic. 

The week of events will take place at The Lark, a theater organization that has partnered with The New Black Fest since 2015.

“The Lark is proud to serve as a partner to The New Black Fest in its mission to celebrate insurgent voices within the diverse African diaspora through theater, music, and discussion” 

“…a gathering of artists, thinkers, activists, and audiences who are dedicated to stretching, interrogating and uplifting the Black aesthetic.”

The kick-off event is sure to be one you’ll want to attend. Black Love, Black Space, and Solidarity, a panel discussion you can not afford to miss with a dynamic line-up that includes Keith Beauchamp (filmmaker, The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till), C.A. Johnson (playwright), Dominique Morisseau (playwright, TV writer), Quentin Walcott (anti-violence activist, educator, facilitator). The panel will be moderated by The New Black Fest founder and artistic director, Keith Josef Adkins. You’ll also have a chance to witness readings of plays by France-Luce Benson, Donja R. Love, Jonathan Payne, and Liza Jessie Peterson. Check out the deets and RSVP below! Visit The New Black Fest for more info!

April 9, 2018 at 7pm
Kick-Off Panel: Black Love, Black Space, and Solidarity

Moderated by Keith Josef Adkins, and featuring Keith A. Beauchamp, C.A. Johnson, Dominique Morisseau, and Quentin Walcott.

 

April 10, 2018 at 7pm
SISTERGURLS AND THE SQUIRREL
by Liza Jessie Peterson

Kitty, the sister of Karmica SutraQuita Jones (of Peterson’s Chiron Homegurl Healer Howls) runs an erotic-product business out of her home. A sales-depot of sorts. Several women gather regularly to sell the products and host sex-toy parties around town. But when a squirrel jumps into an open window, chaos ensues, a family secret is revealed, and old wounds come to the surface to be healed.

 

April 11, 2018 at 7pm
SOFT
by Donja R. Love

Slammed against a poetic backdrop of Urban America, Mr. Isaiah, a recent hire at a disciplinary boarding high school, is ready to make a difference in the lives of his six male students. When one of his boys commits suicide, he is plagued with the questions: Where do Black and Brown boys go when they die? And what makes someone’s struggle so unbearable that they’d take their own life? While seeking answers to this question, he sees the sorrows that each of his boys dances with – and is reminded of his own.

 

April 12, 2018 at 7pm
DEUX FEMMES ON THE EDGE DE LA REVOLUTION
by France-Luce Benson

A pig is sacrificed, a goddess seduces a young bride, and enslaved and self-liberated Africans on the island of San Domingue rise up to end slavery and destroy colonialism. Deux Femmes on the Edge de la Revolution tells the story of the Haitian Revolution from the perspective of two women – an enslaved healer of African nobility, and a French woman sold into marriage. The two form an unlikely alliance on the battlefields of San Domingue, and like the revolution, their journeys will forever change the course of history.

 

April 13, 2018 at 7pm
BROTHER RABBIT
by Jonathan Payne

An Easter Play with a false rabbit and a dead Christ, where the scattered tribes of the inner city are alone against the horrors of a terrible plague. Brother Rabbit questions the influence of the church in the Black Community. An institution once so rooted in the upward mobility of a people, may have tragically fallen out of the prestige it once had so long ago.

 

 

 

The New Black Fest is supported in part by a special grant from the Ford Foundation.

Additional support provided through grants to The Lark from the New York State Council on the Arts, a State Agency, and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, in partnership with the City Council.

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Harlem 9’s 7th Annual 48HOURS IN… ™HARLEM

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Speaking to the Harlem9 team is like speaking to a group of old friends. This group of interdisciplinary artists has been collaboratively producing the Obie Award Winning 48HOURS IN… ™HARLEM  festival for the last seven years, making their family vibe strong. Harlem9 is an arts organization comprised of various producing entities that have come together in Harlem to explore the past, present, and future of Black culture and celebrate the rich history of storytelling within the African diaspora. Garlia Cornelia, Bryan E. Glover, Eric Lockley, Jonathan McCrory, and Liberation Theatre Company (Sandra A. Daley-Sharif and Spencer Scott Barros) are the producers that comprise Harlem9. The event brings together 6 Playwrights,  6 Directors and 18 actors who respond to a literary prompt. Within 48 hours Playwrights write an original play, Directors direct an original production, and actors perform it off book for audiences. 

The 7th Annual 48HOURS IN… ™HARLEM takes place on August 13th at 9:30 pm. The six playwrights include Jordan E. Cooper, Kelley Girod, Daniel Alexander Jones, Donja Love, Cynthia Robinson, and Stacey Rose. Playwrights will re-imagine short stories and poems from renown writers James Baldwin and Sonia Sanchez into 10-minute plays. This year’s Directors are Steve H. Broadnax III, Rodney Gilbert, Mary Hodges, Candis Jones, John Eric Scutchins & Monica L. Williams.

On the surface, this one night only-two performance event at The National Black Theatre is an intense exercise in dramaturgy. This monumental birthing of art is driven by the Harlem 9’s deep commitment to bringing Black people together in the present moment while honoring the legacy of Harlem as the mecca of all things Black Art.

Harlem 9’s twist on the traditional 24-hour play festival is only a small part of the magic that makes 48 Hours in Harlem special. The team is deeply committed to caring for each other within those 48 hours; evident to the commitment each has made the last 7 years. Writer, Director, and Harlem9 founding member Garlia Cornelia Jones-Ly shared that in the last 7 years her life has changed tremendously, resulting in a role shift within the Harlem 9. Despite life transitions, the care her colleagues provide leaves her feeling loved and supported.

The 48 Hours in Harlem fete requires all hands on deck, as each member shared stories of needing naps and having each other’s back to incorporate self-care into the project for themselves. The holistic attention they offer each other overflows into the collective care they provide the diverse group of artists they bring together for one weekend of marathon art making. This community offering is critical in the hardest moments of the festival, especially when they are down to the wire and actors are exhausted.

The Harlem 9 team is an excellent model for collaborative community based devised theatre and risk taking in art creation, a testament to the reason they have lasted this long.

They offer compensation to their artists and are raising money for this production on Go Fund Me.  Tickets are now on sale for their August 13th culminating event 7th Annual 48HOURS IN… ™HARLEM – 7PM AND 9:30PM  at The National Black Theatre in Harlem NY.

 

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Coming Soon

Lynn Nottage Today, Tomorrow and Beyond

Rachel Jarvis

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Lynn Nottage’s 2017 Tony Award nominated play Sweat ended its Broadway run at Studio 54 on June 25. We weren’t ready to say goodbye to Sweat, and we’re definitely not ready to say goodbye to Lynn Nottage, leaving us to wonder what’s next for the two-time Pulitzer prize-winning playwright?

First, if you didn’t get a chance to see Sweat on Broadway or if you did but can’t get one of the poorest cities in America off your heart and mind, then you’ll want to visit Reading, Pennsylvania this summer. Shortly after finishing Sweat, Nottage came up with the idea for a site-specific performance installation honoring the people of Reading. Nottage shared that for a city divided by economical and racial politics, she wanted to highlight the city’s potential to use art and culture to bring its citizens together. The installation titled This is Reading will weave “individual stories into one cohesive and compelling tale of the city. Exploring the various viewpoints of the diverse community, [and] give the audience a vibrant and unique perspective of the city of Reading.” The installation will utilize live performance, visual media, and film. Located at Franklin Street Station, Reading PA, This is Reading will run July 14-16, July 21-23 and July 28-30.

What could possibly be next for Nottage? A musical of course!

Not just any musical, but an adaptation of Sue Monk Kidd’s book, The Secret Life of Bees. Book by Nottage, music by Duncan Sheik (Spring Awakening), lyrics by Susan Birkenhead (Jelly’s Last Jam) and direction by Sam Gold (Fun Home).

Nottage’s first musical follows the story of Lilly Owens, a white teen growing up in 1960’s South Carolina and her Black caretaker Rosaleen. After Rosaleen is hospitalized following an attempt to vote, she and Lily do their best to escape the harsh realities of their respective lives in the Jim Crow South, and happen upon a bee farm. “It sang to me” Nottage said of adapting Kidd’s book to a musical, “Every page I saw a song.”

The Secret Life of Bees will be presented as a workshop production at the Powerhouse Theater from July 27-29, apart of the New York Stage and Film’s 2017 season.

Finally, for the 2017/2018 season, Nottage’s play Mlima’s Tale will make it’s world premiere at The Public Theater and run from March 27 through May 20, 2018. Mlima’s Tale follows the story of Mlima, an african elephant caught between freedom and the

Courtesy of The Public Theater

international ivory black market. Ultimately a story about trade itself, “Mlima leads us through memory and fear, history and tradition, want and need, and reveals the surprising and complicated deals that connect us all.” Next season, The Public will celebrate 50 years at its Astor Place location, and Lynn Nottage will be the only Black playwright with work presented.

From a site-specific performance installation, to her first musical, ending with another show at The Public Theater… Lynn Nottage has given us a lot to look forward to following her Broadway debut, and we will be ready. Sitting front and center.

 

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A Must See

Our Story in 2 Plays for 1 Price: Mfoniso Udofia’s Sojourners & Her Portmanteau

Jerrica White

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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.

Image result for Sojourners and Her Portmanteau

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.

The cast includes Jenny JulesLakisha Michelle MayAdepero OduyeChinasa OgbuaguHubert Point-Du Jour, and Chinaza Uche.

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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