I sat down to speak with actor Bowman Wright on his role in the upcoming production of All The Way, a play that focuses on the relationship between President Lyndon Baines Johnson and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The play centers around the political wrangling that took place to get the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passed. President Johnson and Dr. King had a complex relationship that was at times a futuristic partnership considering the racial temperature of the times and at others filled with the tension and paranoia that marked Johnson’s interactions with just about everyone. A lot of the tension between President Johnson and Dr. King centered on the removal of the Voting Rights portion of the bill, however, they came to the realization that this issue could be taken care of in the next year. The Voting Rights Act passed in 1965.
All The Way walks the audience through this crucial moment in history and features 17 actors playing more than 40 historical figures, including FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, Sen. Hubert Humphrey, Governor George Wallace, Walter Jenkins, Robert McNamara, Sen. Richard Russell, Roy Wilkins and Stanley Levison.
According to Wright, one of the great things about All The Way is,
It sparks conversation, which should make people want to talk about their politicians and have a conversation about it, realizing that this is a time of anger. I don’t think we are too far from that now. I think we are actually at the same point. Everyone is very, very angry and reacting with their emotions rather than common sense. This is really good timing to be doing this play.
I asked Wright about playing the role of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr particularly because he had previously portrayed Dr. King in Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop, a powerful imagining of Dr. King’s last night in the Lorraine Hotel on the eve of his assassination. Wright, a consummate professional with a resume of plays such as King Hedley II (King) and Our Lady of Kibeho; TogDog/UnderDog and A Raisin in the Sun was quick to make the distinction between an imagined scenario and real and factual events that would have occurred three years prior to King’s assassination.
For me the most important thing was focusing on what was going on in the time period right now. My distrust (as King) of LBJ isn’t about something I think he will do in the future but of what I think he won’t do right now, that he will allow his political ambitions to overshadow what this bill really means and what this bill can really do for the people.
As Wright delves into the relationship between the two men, he hones in on the fact that it wasn’t necessarily that King distrusted Johnson in those moments, it was more that King was disappointed.
LBJ wanted the War on Poverty just as much as King but he got wrapped up in the Vietnam War and that is what really destroyed his presidency.
Wright further elucidates,
King realized that this President needed to be pushed to do the right thing and asks himself what he has to do to make that happen. King wants to make sure the bill was not gutted as Johnson had done before; that he really pushes it through.
Wright says that performing as King in The Mountaintop gave him a deeper more personal look into King as a person, particularly the magnitude of his character both as a public persona and the truth of his humanity.
A man trying to do the right thing that also has his own flaws but is still trying to do the right thing is more powerful and more courageous. The truth is not always going to make you smile and it may not always make you happy. But King comes to bring truth to the people and the truth of what people need.
At this point, Wright opens up about how Dr. King has personally impacted him.
For me King has brought me back personally from a lot of bad times in my life. Reading his stuff and hearing his speeches and just listening to him. Life at times can make you bitter about a lot of different things. Maybe your career, maybe other situations in life and the great thing about King is that his philosophy is sound. He has a couple of things in his sermons that make you look at yourself and you have to accept things about yourself. You have to take your grief and say this is my grief, now what am I going to do with this grief? Am I going to sit in it or am I going to try to serve in some way? Not to make this grief go away but to make this grief be purposeful and to have this grief actually mean something and be able to change someone else’s situation. As I am changing someone else’s situation, I am also changing my situation.
This juxtaposition of the man versus the myth seems to have served as the launching pad for Wright’s ability to so powerfully capture the essence of Dr. King.
All The Way is particularly relevant and timely because it takes place during an election cycle. Today, as we approach another election cycle, I asked Wright about similarities between then and now. With a social climate that is roiling over police brutality and disparate treatment of people of color made hyper visible by movements like Black Lives Matter, I asked Wright his thoughts on whether Dr. King would approve of the movement’s tactics and focus. While Wright made clear that he cannot speak for Dr. King or anyone else, his observation was that it is a bigger issue than race and that no one side can fully blame the other for the situation we currently find ourselves in.
#BlackLivesMatter. I do think he (King) would be behind that 100% and he would have held it up to the government to get the government to hold their end of the bargain. With #BlackLivesMatter it is not that other lives don’t matter and I think King would want that to be clear. But this is why voting rights is important and this is exactly why we need to be involved in local government. Be involved in your local offices so these things cannot happen and if they do happen there will be punishment when they happen. A lot of times people are not involved in our local community. We are not paying attention to each other and we are not having the conversations we need to have.
Wright continues to reflect,
It seems that in this country African Americans have had to teach morality to the White race. For so long in this country we have had to be the better men or people. Now when I say this I don’t mean all white people, but I do mean a certain white culture.
It’s clear that Wright has spent time pondering the complexity of these issues and levels no direct blame instead choosing to embody personally King’s teachings of compassion for humanity and justice for all.
When it comes to the intrinsic nature of Dr. King, Wright seems to have been able to tap into much of the core of Dr. King both as a an icon who’s idealism is often manipulated for public consumption and as a man who acknowledged his own humanity and flawed nature while still being able to push forward with compassion his ideals for an America in which the tenants of equality, justice and love abounds. If you are in the DC area, be sure to check Bowman Wright out in All The Way. All The Way runs April 1st-May 8th on the Fichandler Stage at Arena Stage. The official opening night is April 7th. Tickets are available at www.arenastage.org.
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.
We Were There: Condola Rashad and Laurie Metcalf in Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part 2
Part of the magic of live theatre is the suspension of reality achieved by sitting in a dark room with strangers as you’re transported to another world. You’re relieved of clearing your work email. You’re unchained from the claws of Sallie Mae. Your anxiety rests. Whether you come to the theatre to laugh, cry, learn, or heal—you come with a clear heart and mind, with the expectation to experience life through a lens that is not wholly yours. Lucas Hnath unapologetically roots us in reality in his play A Doll’s House, Part 2.
In his take on the life after Henrik Ibsen’s 1879 masterpiece, A Doll’s House, Hnath poses the question of what happens when the rocket ship doesn’t take off. What happens when you’re stuck squarely in the confines of your own living room, and more hauntingly, within the raw thoughts of your mind?
15 years later and Nora returns to the very door she slammed, ending the life she shared with her husband and three kids. The question is why.
Walking down the orchestra aisles in John Golden Theatre felt like picking my seat on the floor in front of the television. I cosied myself into my seat and took in the set— the absence of objects that might reference or represent life, love, and family; just as my eyes landed on the enormous black door, the lights went down and the story began.
As a bit of reference, Ibsen’s A Doll’s House is quite “woke,” if I do say so myself, covering topics like the role of women in a marriage, marriage expectations, and women’s rights. Hnath carries this torch into this new work, directed by Fun Home’s Sam Gold, and continues the conversation with poignance.
Laurie Metcalf has the intimidating task of bringing us into the mind of a woman who believes leaving her husband and children was the only way to activate her free will and identity, and she does so with great deliberation. Her Nora, the independent writer who has “made it,” but wants everyone to know the road wasn’t easy, is equal parts sarcastic, petty, touching, and unapologetic.
Image: Brigitte Lacombe
The relatability in Hnath’s voice reverberates back and forth through the fast-paced dialogue. One minute you’re admiring the pleats and frills in Nora’s period-appropriate bodice, and the next you’re realizing, no matter how firm in your beliefs you stand, you empathize and connect with the well-balanced conversations carried out in modern vernacular, from the point of view of Norma, Torvald (played by a sincere Chris Cooper), and Anne Marie (Tony winner Jayne Houdyshell). And did I mention it’s laugh-out-audibly-loud funny?
Smart and endearing, Emmy (Condola Rashad) is a force against her estranged mother’s shameless manipulation. She is curiosity and a second chance, stained, but not damaged, with latent dismay. Although only in the show for one scene, Rashad’s delicate and redeeming grace will leave with you.
We don’t leave the room wondering who was right or who was wrong, rather whose voice is loudest in the back of our own heads as we walk—or not walk—in our truth. Life is complicated, and so is love. What did you take away from A Doll’s House, Part 2? Sound off in the comments below!
For tickets visit A Doll’s House, Part 2
We Were There: Experience Deja Vu With Groundhog Day
What if you had to relive the same day over and over and over AND over again? Would you try something new every time to get a different outcome? Would you drive yourself crazy trying to figure out how to stop it? Now a two-time Olivier Award-winning new musical, Groundhog Day takes us on a whirlwind of adventure and misery through the eyes of a jaded weatherman forced to relive the same day, every day.
Funny enough, Groundhog Day is actually based on a film with the same title, starring Bill Murray and Andie MacDowell, and co-written by the show’s book writer Danny Rubin, about a weatherman caught in time and forced to relive the same day over and over and over again.
The concept seemingly feels like dangerous ground for a musical or a play, for that matter, as it forces the audience to watch the same moments over and over AND over again. Yet, somehow Groundhog Day manages to make what could be dangerous territory and turn it into a brilliant masterpiece of a musical. Largely in part to the catchy, fun music of the brilliant Tim Minchin, Groundhog Day makes deja vu seem kinda… cool.
Like the 1993 film, we meet our snarky protagonist Phil Connors (Andy Karl), a weatherman sent to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, to cover the annual prediction of spring, as predicted by “Phil the Groundhog.” Naturally, Phil feels nothing but disdain for the ritual, Punxsutawney, and everyone who celebrates it, including his producer Rita Hanson (Barrett Doss), who he tries to woo while acting like a complete prick to her.
As the Groundhog Day version of Ebenezer Scrooge, Connors needs to deal with the consequences of his terrible, often hilarious, actions. Cue the deja vu, where he must relive the same day over and over.
While he initially spends his days in self-loathing, also encountering a massive groundhog mascot that hilariously hits him on the head as he passes by every day (and he totally deserves it too), he eventually comes to his senses and looks to turning over a new leaf as he tries to win Rita over.
But not before indulging in his share of booze, women, and crime. Repeatedly, of course.
Karl’s charm really comes to play here, as we can easily grow to hate Phil Connors. After all, he’s literally the worst. Yet somehow, watching him suffer this forever purgatory, you can’t help but both root for his liberation and also hope he’s stuck there for all eternity. Karl’s performance in the West End run of the show earned him an Olivier for Best Actor in a Musical last week.
It helps that Broadway newcomer Barrett Doss is an excellent match for Karl, their chemistry undeniable, like her talent. The role (and some of the songs) hint that she’s more than the boring, hard-working producer that we’re led to believe (largely in part to her interactions with Connors), but, underneath the surface, a quirkier soul searching for love. Doss plays that side of Rita with enormous heart and playful charm and wit.
The show also offers a few solos of other Punxsutawney citizens, who express their own joys, worries, and troubles of life in the small town.
Minchin, director Matthew Warchus, Rob Howell (set design), Hugh Vanstone (light design), Paul Kieve (illusions), and Peter Darling (choreography) prove that when the creative team shares the same vision, magic can happen, as evident in the first act’s amazing car-chase number with Phil, two idiot bar patrons, and the Punxsutawney police — one of the most fun sequences I’ve seen on Broadway since … everything in Matilda, which featured the same creative team behind this musical.
All in all, I was pleasantly surprised with how much I enjoyed Groundhog Day, and, honestly, wouldn’t mind being stuck in a suburban purgatory with Phil and company again… and again.
Groundhog Day plays at the August Wilson Theatre.
Billy Porter Returns to Huntington Theatre Company to Direct Topdog/Underdog
Billy Porter is back in the director’s chair! After a busy 2016, the Tony winner has reunited with the Huntington Theatre Company to bring Suzan-Lori Parks‘ Topdog/Underdog to the BU Theatre Stage. The play is as famous as the man calling the shots. With a Pulitzer Prize for Drama and incredible casts from both regional and Broadway productions, it’s a show you don’t want to miss.
Topdog/Underdog tells the story of two brothers and their reliance on each other to survive the world of gambling, relationships, poverty, and racism. Forced to live with his brother after his wife kicks him out, a former Three-card Monte player, aptly named Lincoln, ends up taking a job as a Lincoln impersonator while the younger brother, Booth, turns to shoplifting.
Matthew J. Harris returns to the Huntington stage as the hot-headed Booth, having recently played Antwoine at Huntington in Kirsten Greenidge‘s Milk Like Sugar. Tyrone Mitchell Henderson (Bring In Da’ Noise Bring in Da Funk tour) plays opposite Harris as Lincoln.
The play premiered Off-Broadway at the Public Theater in July of 2001, directed by George C. Wolfe, and starring Don Cheadle as Booth and Jeffrey Wright as Lincoln. It then opened on Broadway in April 2002, with Mos Def replacing Cheadle. One year later, the show’s cast transferred to London’s Royal Court Theatre.
While Billy Porter has given us Tony-winning performances and incredible albums, his return to Huntington brings a special kind of anticipation. His 2015 production of The Colored Museum shook audiences with its grit and unapologetic comedy. Though different in tone, the topical Topdog/Underdog is sure to ignite conversations about family and community. Porter’s attentiveness and exceptional talent have already been praised by local publications, and his keen sense of musicality and gift of communication will give new life to the Broadway classic.
The show currently runs through April 9th. For tickets and more information, visit Huntington Theatre.
Nicholas Christopher Brings the Heat to Broadway in Miss Saigon
The heat is on in Saigon as the Olivier and Tony-winning musical, featuring the epic onstage helicopter landing, returns to Broadway after a 16-year hiatus. Two decades ago, a visually stunning, tragic masterpiece graced London stages and then on Broadway in 2001. Written by Alain Boublil and Claude-Michel Schönberg, and produced by Cameron Mackintosh, the same team that brought us Les Misérables, Miss Saigon celebrates its 25th anniversary, having been reworked in London for modern audiences since its original Broadway debut.
Based on the classic Puccini opera Madame Butterfly, the musical follows the budding romance between an American GI, Chris, and a Vietnamese bar-girl named Kim. There’s an instant attraction, yet with the end of the Vietnam War and the fall of Saigon, Chris must flee the country, leaving Kim behind. In their three years apart, they build new lives, with Kim eagerly awaiting Chris’ return.
Image: Matthew Murphy/The Publicity Office
This time around, Hamilton’s former George Washington, Nicholas Christopher, joins the cast as John. Broadway audiences have seen Christopher in Motown the Musical and Hamilton as well as the Off-Broadway productions of Lazarus, The Tempest, Whorl Inside a Loop, and Rent. Broadway veteran Katie Rose Clarke (Wicked, Allegiance, The Light in the Piazza) stars alongside him, with Jon Jon Briones as The Engineer, Eva Noblezada as Kim, Rachelle Ann Go as Gigi, Alistair Brammer, as Chris, and Devin IIaw as Thuy making their Broadway debuts.
Directed by Laurence Connor, the creative team also includes choreography by Bob Avian, costume design by Andreane Neofitou, lighting design by Bruno Poet, sound design by Mick Potter, and projection design by Luke Halls.
Previews began March 1st with an official March 23rd opening at the Broadway Theatre, incidentally the same theatre it debuted. The show will run through January 2018 before launching a North American tour.
For tickets, visit Miss Saigon.