Stephen Byrd and Alia Jones-Harvey are visionaries and calculated risk takers. The two who are the heart and soul of Front Row Productions currently represent the only Black producers on Broadway. The dynamic duo are a part of what makes Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed such an intoxicatingly poignant theatrical offering. Eclipsed, which opens at the Golden Theatre in New York, is historic due to its entirely female cast and creative team. Amidst the hustle and bustle of preparing for such a highly anticipated show, the pair sat down with Broadway Black Founder, Andrew Shade to discuss their work and how they came to be powerhouse producers.
Stephen Byrd’s thoughtful intellect and iron grasp on how to make things happen is undeniable. He shoots from the hip and holds no punches when commenting about the recent #OscarsSoWhite controversy and Chris Rock’s underwhelming attempts at humor while hosting the all-white high five fest. “They feel as if they are vindicated now. Because Chris Rock went up there and made a jerk of himself in my opinion, at our expense.”
It’s a sentiment that turns into a discussion about the viral video clips featuring Jada Pinkett Smith and others. Byrd simply deemed the melee as crass. The Smiths have been Broadway investors but there is a world of difference between being a Hollywood star that lends their name and money to a Broadway project as opposed to actually producing. “When I look at the controversy in Hollywood, I have no real sympathy for them because producing on Broadway is five times as hard as making a movie, because we don’t have the benefactor to call the studio to fund us. We have to find our own funding so a Hollywood producer, all they have to do is take their script to Sony or Fox or Searchlight or wherever and look for funding. We don’t have that resource on Broadway.”
Byrd’s previous background was on Wall Street. He states the partnership between he and Alia Jones-Harvey is one of necessity. “I need her. She’s a good partner.” It is in this moment that Byrd’s rich laughter bursts forward and the essence of the dynamic between the two is revealed. And the previously quiet Jones-Harvey adds, “And I need him.” Her laughter bubbles forth and joins his. It’s at this point where one can see the evident working chemistry between the pair, who have worked together for over ten years.
Byrd recalls his 2008 decision to do an all-Black Broadway revival of Tennessee William’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof which blew every other production off the Great White Way and was the highest grossing Broadway play that season. “I looked around the landscape and I needed someone that I could implicitly and explicitly trust and that had the smarts and there stood Alia,” Byrd said, “so I asked her to join me on that adventure.” But of course, when it comes to the accolades one might expect on such a major accomplishment, Black excellence is often ignored in traditionally white spaces. Byrd reflects, “We didn’t get one nomination for anything. We were the biggest grossing play on Broadway and we didn’t get one nomination during the awards season. It was like we didn’t exist. And there were no protests about that.” It was an omission that spoke volumes. Further, Byrd states “We don’t even get recognized by the actors sometimes.”
The recognition that should naturally come with success is often nowhere to be found. While it is often a thankless task thanks to some who fail to acknowledge the importance of the work of Byrd and Jones-Harvey on their projects, they still press forward. They have identified an audience that ‘lives somewhere between Tyler Perry and August Wilson’. Their target is a young and sophisticated crowd that may not always identify with classical plays, instead identifying with the contemporary stars in headlining roles. It’s a strategy that works well for the pair. The two have spent a lot of time and thought crafting a process that produces hit after hit. A combination of the right material, with the right talent and a new and forward-thinking business model that allows investors to invest in a grouping of projects, similar to a mutual fund that reduces the inherent risk incurred on the possibility of a flop while allowing the money to be made back up on a project that becomes a hit. It’s another example of the geniuses at work. Looking forward audiences can expect upcoming productions of Black Orpheus with top Brazilian Black talent and sizzling contemporary music and The Wiz.
But right now, the moment belongs to Eclipsed or as some in the audience may say “The Lupita play”. Jones-Harvey talks about how South African-born Director Liesl Tommy had already been tapped to join the Broadway production so that there could be a fixed directorial presence due to Danai Gurira’s ongoing commitment to her role in “The Walking Dead”. “Danai knew she would be back and forth with “The Walking Dead”…so she wanted someone who would have the shorthand and that was Liesl.” “They’ve already worked on this project, this is their third time around.” “Working with Liesl is a dream. She anticipates. She is an amazing director.” Byrd chimes in, “She goes the extra mile working with her has been nothing less than a blessing. Very detail oriented….we love her.”
According to Byrd, he never looked at the play as being a historical coming together. It was something that just happened. “We knew there would be all women in the cast, but that was about it,” said Jones-Harvey.
“Which was music to my ears,” finishes Byrd with a hearty laugh. And again, there is that spark that belies a comfort and ease of two people who work well together and just seem to click. Byrd and Jones-Harvey have created something special. A fearless approach to seeking out new audiences and a very keen eye for what works, even in the face of erasure and naysayers. It’s a beautiful thing.
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.