Tony Award winning director Kenny Leon has enjoyed an exceptional and creative career on Broadway, in regional theatre, and television. But, now, he’s embarking on what may be his most ambitious project to date – directing the highly anticipated television production of NBC’s The Wiz Live! starring a stellar cast that includes newcomer Shanice Williams as “Dorothy” and the original “Dorothy” Stephanie Mills. In a recent interview with Broadway Black, Leon shared his thoughts on several subjects related to the production, including rehearsing with the cast, the differences in directing a stage play versus a staged musical, and how younger audience members will relate to this timeless story.
BB: So what are rehearsals like these days?
Crazy! It’s all consuming in a good way. The actors are in a very good place. And, we’re just trying to make sure we get the right shots and the right angles to make sure we’re telling the story.
It was like four weeks into rehearsal hall to get all the actors emotionally in the right places. Now, we’ve moved to the studios. And, I can realize how many acrobatic moves there are and make sure we can make some adjustments so that it will read better on camera. And, at the same time keep them in the right place because now that we’re doing technical stuff, I can’t have them lose the emotional stuff because this is really about Storytelling 101. So, I don’t want people to leave it until the commercials are there.
The story has to be told in such a strong emotional way that we stay there with it. And, there’s nothing like this, in terms of the way it looks. It’s not like the Grammy Awards. Or it’s not like the Voice. Or, it’s not like a play. Or, it’s not like a movie. Or it’s not like a television show. It will look different and tonally beat different than anything you’ve seen. So, that part of it is very exciting and scary. But, exciting in a good way.
BB: How is it different directing a stage play versus a staged musical?
It’s all the same because I’m a storyteller so it’s all about finding the truth and understanding the tools that you have to work with. And, my directing for stage has always been very cinematic. And, when I come to the camera side it’s like I got more tools. I got a dolly. I got a steady cam. With this particular project, it’s taken all of my skillset. I ran a major theatre company in Atlanta, so administratively; I’ve run big groups of people. I’ve done musicals. I’ve done five movies of the week. I’ve done episodic – “Private Practice” and “The Ghost Whisperer.” So, I’ve done all of that stuff.
This project requires a skillset from all of that because it’s none of that. This is a hybrid. America hasn’t seen it. And, directors haven’t directed it. But, I have done a little bit of all of that. We don’t want to do anything that would not make the story look great. That’s the exciting part. It’s a hybrid. It feels like a revolution here.
I learned something from Sound of Music and from Peter Pan. What we’ve done for our production this year, for instance, when you want to shoot into the wings, you couldn’t do that before. So, what we’ve done, we designed the LED legs so that the legs turn and form a backdrop so you can shoot a character here because they have a backdrop there. You don’t have to see the wings where the other actors are getting ready for the next scene. So, I have learned from seeing those once or twice. So, yeah it’s exciting because it’s a hybrid.
BB: What does this production hold for audiences who are Shanice’s age, i.e., young girl?
She’s the living embodiment of Dorothy. Because the story that you’re telling in The Wiz, they can say that’s a real story for them. This is a girl who didn’t have a Twitter account, who didn’t have a first professional show. Now, she’s in it and she’s beautiful. And, she looks the way she looks. She doesn’t look like a Hollywood size two. But, she looks like an ordinary girl who’s beautiful, who went after her passion and got an opportunity. So it tells you that if you work hard, this can happen to you, too.
Like everyone else, we’re giddy and excited to see what Leon has in store for us with this version of the black cult classic. And, we’ll be tuning in when it airs on NBC on Thursday, December 3 at 8 pm.
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.