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

Broadway Black

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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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A Must See

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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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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Twitter: @BroadwayBlack

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