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EXCLUSIVE: E. Faye Butler Stars In ‘Vanya & Sonya & Masha & Spike’ At The Goodman Theatre

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E. Faye Butler is a consummate performer who has graced stages throughout the country for decades. She is now starring in Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike as it makes its Chicago debut at the Goodman Theatre.

In this Broadway hit, siblings Vanya and Sonia have spent their adult years trapped in mundane lives at their family’s cottage, caring for their ailing parents. Meanwhile their self-involved sister Masha, a glamorous movie star, has traveled the world in decadent style. After their soothsayer/cleaning woman Cassandra (Butler) warns Vanya and Sonia of impending doom, Masha arrives unannounced, accompanied by her hunky young lover, Spike. When Masha reveals plans that will upend the family, long-repressed resentments bubble over in a weekend full of wild costume parties, voodoo dolls and surprise romance.

Recently, Ms. Butler sat down with Broadway Black to discuss her latest work, her longevity in the industry, and the importance of arts education in schools.

Broadway Black (BB): What attracted you to the role of Cassandra in Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike?

E. Faye Butler (EFB): I’ve studied {Playwright} Christopher Durang in school and his writing is unique. Hearing that he incorporated an African American character {into his play} was interesting to me. You never hear of the Black characters. Durang left it open in the show from Cassandra to be between 20-60 years old. It left it open to the actor’s possibilities. I can make her what I want it to be and create something that is different. Cassandra could be whatever you wanted her to be, even in her ethnicity. I approach her as a seer from an island, but I don’t quite know which one. Even in the costuming, there are so many cultural references: African, Jamaican, Brazilian. My Cassandra is a secret fashion designer.

BB: You have a long history with the Goodman Theatre, having appeared in several productions there. Tell us why that particular theatre and Chicago in general are so special to you.

EFB: Chicago is my home. Having grown up here, I have strong roots. I’m a Southside girl. So much American culture and icons in America are from Chicago. My parents were very active ensuring we went to the arts. My Godmother was Mahalia Jackson so I have experienced a migration of gospel music. I never forget who I am. I don’t get ahead of myself. I still take public transportation. Through my life experiences, I’m allowed to bring special things because I live amongst the people. I still attend Fellowship Baptist Church. All of it keeps me humble. I’m not in a bubble.

I went to the Goodman School of Theatre and graduated from Illinois State University, a public school. I auditioned. I broke through with {Director} Steve Scott, interestingly, the same director as I have now. A Christmas Carol was the first. I have a real friendship with Goodman folks. Chicagoans are regular people. They teach the art of the true theatre.

I’m a working actor and have been so for 40 years. I have never had to take another kind of job. I have worked with every Broadway actor and producer but never been on a Broadway show. It has never been a goal for me. I make sure I make a living through good, honest work.

BB: What role does performing play in your life?

EFB: You have to remember it is just A PART of your life, not your life. Then it can be very rewarding. Family, religion, faith, friends, community at large. These are the things that are important. It’s not what I live for. I love all facets of it, but it’s {just} a part. I can bring to it, as an individual, as a human, the human condition. It’s what playwrights write about. Just as in the play {Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike}, there is sibling rivalry, dead parents, in real life. When we’re reading, there’s a real human side.

My #1 job is to audition. To get in the room to secure the job. You have to earn it, so you don’t owe anybody anything. I don’t want to disappoint the directors. People think you can climb tall buildings when you get to a certain status, but the hardest thing to get across {to those casting a role} is to let you do what you do.

BB: How do you keep things fresh after four decades as a performer?

EFB: Every time I go away from it {performing}, and I go back, I have something fresh, bright, and energetic. I like new projects. I don’t like to repeat myself. Someone else needs the opportunity to do the role. We have to hand down to other people. Coming through in the 70s, roles were hard to come by. Now, there’s more and they must be passed down. When you have your hand closed to those coming behind you, nothing gets out or in.

BB: What advice would you give to younger Broadway Black actors and actresses?

EFB: Don’t pigeonhole yourself. Be a well-rounded actor. Audition for everything. You can change the mind of an author, producer, director. You have to believe you’re the best person for the role. Go after that role! You can make it happen. If you don’t believe, who else will believe? Don’t wait on others.

Look at Audra (McDonald), Norm (Lewis), Nicki (Anika Noni Rose). You have to think beyond what you see. You have to break the barriers. You can’t wait for someone else to decide what you want to be. Make it happen. Keep studying. Keep going to dance class. Keep getting coached. Keep singing. You have to do the work.

BB: What are your thoughts on Arts Education?

EFB: Arts Education develops good human beings. Without the arts, I don’t know where a lot of great performers would be. It’s a part of what makes you a great human being. Music, Theatre, Arts can be an outlet for children. It can change the face of who you are. Reading, writing skills, music, the knowledge of music and culture. That is what the arts do for you. Because of that, theatre falls into a great place. It makes you a well-rounded human beings. You have to be an activist of the arts and an advocate of arts with children. It’s an important facet in developing a child. The Arts come from the Motherland. How can you cut us off? From the womb, from the church, it’s a part of who we are. We listen in the home but it stops when children go to school. It has to be in our educational system. We’re denying our kids a part of their life.

BB: What is next for you?

EFB: I have dates booked from now until December. I will be working with College Bound Executive Director Kenneth Ward this fall. Ballou High School in Washington, DC has been reconstituted. There will be a new high school but they still need to raise funds for their theatre department because they took all of the Arts out. So I will be doing a Benefit for Ballou to reactivate the theatre department.

I also have club dates in Chicago. I will be performing at Ten Chimneys in WI. I will also be in Amish country at the Fulton Theatre in Lancaster, PA next year. They have taken the blockbuster movie “Ghost” and made it smaller, just 9 people. I will be playing the role made famous by Whoopi Goldberg.

E. Faye Butler is the recipient of six Joseph Jefferson Awards, four Black Theater Alliance Awards, an After Dark Award, a John Barrymore Award, a Rockford Area Music Industry Award, two Helen Hayes Awards, an Excellence in the Arts Award, a Kathryn Lampkey Award and an Ova­tion Award. Ms. Butler was the recipient of the 2011 Sarah Siddons Society Leading Lady Award; she was also named a 2012 Lunt Fontanne Fellow and was inducted into the National Women in the Arts Museum in Washington, DC, in 2012.

Vanya and Sonya and Masha and Spike is running now at the Goodman Theatre through July 26.

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We Were There: Sojourners & Her Portmanteau

Jerrica White

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[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.

Sojourners

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

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]

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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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We Were There: Condola Rashad and Laurie Metcalf in Lucas Hnath’s A Doll’s House, Part 2

Jerrica White

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hnath

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.

Photo Flash: First Look at Laurie Metcalf & Chris Cooper in A DOLL'S HOUSE, PART 2

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

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We Were There: Experience Deja Vu With Groundhog Day

Jazmine Harper-Davis

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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.

Image result for groundhog day musicalKarl’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.

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Billy Porter Returns to Huntington Theatre Company to Direct Topdog/Underdog

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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.

https://www.bu.edu/today/files/2017/03/topdog-underdog-lincoln_995x664_33290395511_69626608c8_o.jpg

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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.

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Nicholas Christopher Brings the Heat to Broadway in Miss Saigon

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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.

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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.

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