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A Must See

In Conversation: Ike Holter’s Exit Strategy Makes New York Debut

Nicole

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Broadway Black’s Creator, Andrew Shade sat down with Ike Holter to discuss his new play Exit Strategy presented by Primary Stages. Ike Holter’s work has been produced at The Steppenwolf Garage, LiveWire Chicago, Theater 7, The Greenhouse Theater, Theater on The Lake and The Inconvenience, where he is a founding member and resident writer. His show Hit The Wall played at Steppenwolf Garage and Off-Broadway at The Barrow Street Theater in New York.  Jackalope Theater produced his new play Exit Strategy, which played to sold-out houses and transferred to Michigan. He was recently named Playwright of the Year by the Chicago Reader and Chicagoan of the Year for Theater by The Chicago Tribune. Also, His monologues have been published in The New Yorker and several editions of Applause Books. Exit Strategy is Holter’s second New York show after bringing his hit play Hit the Wall to the city in 2013. Exit Strategy is described as:

A fiery, riveting work from the award-winning writer of Hit the Wall, about the chaotic final days of an urban public high school, Exit Strategy is a taut, edge-of-your-seat drama about the future of public education from a vital new voice in American playwriting.

On the surface, one might think the play is just about another school caught up in the mass public school closings that occurred in Chicago.  Well, you’d be wrong. While Exit Strategy tackles this issue, make no mistake, Holter writes plays about people. This work is more about the everyday humanity of people who happen to also be trying to make serious decisions about keeping the doors of the school open. “It’s about people doing people things,” says, Holter. And while he says it’s definitely a Chicago play, one doesn’t have to be deeply involved in the rich history of Chicago to understand the play.

It is this peek into the everyday lives of people that makes his work so powerful and so easy to connect with. There’s no surprise to this approach. Holter himself is the epitome of everyman. He zooms into the interview on rollerblades and casually tells Shade that he typically rollerblades several miles a day…everywhere… eschewing trains and driving. In this case nearly 30 blocks to reach the interview. Not what one would typically expect from a man who was named ‘Chicagoan of the Year’.  “That’s how I roll,” he says, with a laugh. “It’s good exercise, it’s cool.”

This sensibility speaks volumes about Holter.  For example, although the play tackles the heavy scenario of teachers, an administrator, and students coping with the fact that their urban school is closing and what, if anything they should do about it, it is handled in a way that brings to life each character in all of their witty and sometimes surprisingly raunchy glory.  “It’s an R-rated comedy drama with people doing extreme things. But it’s also very human, and I hope very relatable.”

Ike Holter came up with this play as a result of being commissioned by Jackalope Theatre.  Holter says, “I had no idea what I was going to write.” The suggestion was thrown out that he should tackle the school system and what was happening there. “That was all I needed.” Holter, who also teaches regularly (among other things) was able to write the play fairly quickly. “I have a lot of friends who are teachers and I have a lot of friends who aren’t teachers and I wanted to write a story about people hanging on and letting go.”  Holter’s goal was to approach his characters in a way that strips the deification that often goes along with being a teacher or an administrator. “I’m trying to humanize a lot of these people.” “Let’s see them at their best and at their worst and just make them people.”

There’s a definite sense of admiration conveyed when Holter talks about his appreciation of the storefront theater community in Chicago. “It’s my favorite. You’re not going to find a better place for writers to get their stuff done without a lot of rigamarole…The storefront scene is incredible!”  All of his plays began in Chicago’s storefront community, which is a more grassroots, community-based approach to theater. In fact, Jackalope uses a small storefront space [within Broadway Armory Park] converted into a theater, where actors are typically non-union and seasons are generally shorter. It’s an embracing atmosphere that seems to fit nicely with Holter’s creativity. When it comes to diversity Holter says he is seeing more plays that aren’t from just straight white guys and it’s exciting. However, Holter wants to move away from what he calls the tokenization of minority groups. “You could fill just as many seasons on plays with minorities as you could with cisgendered white dudes.” Basically, it’s time to stop highlighting any particular group and saying it’s their season. It’s everyone’s season. We’re all a part of this community and the seasons should reflect that.

Holter circles back to talk about his cast, who have remained intact since their runs in Philadelphia. “They are a great cast. They are really opinionated people and they challenge me about a lot of things in the script which is always good. They aren’t there just to punch in and punch out, they are very passionate people.” And where Holter credits the cast for their passion, he also has major kudos for director Kip Fagan. “He is insanely talented. He is a fast worker, he is one of the fastest directors I have ever worked with. He is incredibly specific and precise.”  With such a talented cast and incredible material it sounds like Exit Strategy is a play you don’t want to miss. Check out Exit Strategy during its limited engagement and New York premiere March 30 through May 6th at the Cherry Lane Theatre presented by Primary Stages.

Nicole "Blackberri" Johnson is a freelance writer, stage/ film actress, activist and entrepreneur. Mom of three. Blackberri is also a notorious cape thief and unapologetic bacon lover. Follow on twitter @Blackberri

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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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