Production photos by T. Charles Erickson
Sports aren’t exactly my ministry. When I read that Marco Ramirez’s, The Royale, is based on the story of Jack Johnson, the first African-American Heavyweight Champion of the world, let’s just say my heart didn’t exactly leap with excitement.
It is rhythmic. It is theatrical. It is a fresh take on story telling. Truly a must see.
I recently had the chance to chat with leading actor, Khris Davis about his New York debut in The Royale. Here’s what he had to say.
Broadway Black (BB): I’m curious to hear about your initial reaction to The Royale and reading the script. When did you know you needed to do this?
Khris Davis (KD): I knew I needed to do it when I read it because there were a lot of things in the script that were important to me an African in America. Although this took place in 1905-1910, and I was only born in the 80s, there were many things that I thought my mom, my aunts, and my cousins went through. We’re still fighting to be seen. We’re Africans in America who want to be seen as normal people who do great things. You hear things like ‘for a black person you’re pretty dope.’ You know, ‘you’re pretty for a dark skin chick.’ You just want to hear that you’re pretty. You’re tired of hearing that sh*t. You don’t want to hear that you’re secluded.
BB: Yes, you’re speaking to the choir.
KD: Yea, you know I heard that too when growing up. One thing we don’t talk about a lot is color complex within the black community. Being a dark skin person, you hear a lot of crazy things. Not just from outside of the culture, but from within the culture. Seeing that schema in 1905 to now—that really stuck out to me. I watched this documentary and I saw that the New York Times was about to make a post, making a mockery of Jack Johnson. It said ‘for a black person or for a negro in America to overcome a white man is nearly impossible because they have larger frontal lobes, they’re not that intelligent.’ He fought through that and succeeded. So I feel it is important to seen this story, on this stage, in the epicenter of theater in America.
BB: One overarching theme that I’m getting from the show is the desire to be and have the best, in every aspect in life… and the consequences that come along with that. My question for you is how does race and the time period of the show affect this and how is this still relevant today?
KD: We can talk about our current president. He is for all intents and purposes the best president we’ve had for people as a whole. He has received so much opposition and it’s not his viewpoints, it’s the color of his skin. He’s just being the best he can be. He never plays his race card, he never brings it up. That’s just like Jack Johnson. At his time no black man was ever able to fight a white heavyweight champion. And what did he do, he ended up beating the white heavyweight champion and got in the newspaper. He bruised white masculinity and white America. It was staggering for them. He gave hope to the black community that we can climb over that wall of racism and that the color line isn’t as real as they make it seem.
BB: Exposure. His fight to become the best in all aspects gave him and, in turn, the achievements of blacks, exposure.
KD: Yes. We did have W.E.B. Dubois, Booker T Washington, and Marcus Garvey at this time, but on a main stream, to cross the color line like that was super huge. He crossed the line in relationships, where he chose to live, who he chose to hang out with, all because he wanted to be the best.
When I read this play, I was thinking, we still are trying to see more of our black faces respected for the films we’re trying to produce. Truly, on the top level, we are still fighting to see a movie being nominated. We want to share our current black experience because we are just people living. We are humans too and we have a shared experience here in this county.
BB: Absolutely. I’m so happy that The Royale, and this story you’re telling is part of a larger season on and off Broadway. We still have a far way to go, but in comparison to #OscarsSoWhite and the issues that we are still having to address in Hollywood, there are so many great performances that may pan out for this theatre award season to be more representative of the work WE are doing.
KD: Yes, it’s really exciting with The Color Purple, Head of Passes..
BB: Shuffle Along, Familiar, Eclipsed!
KD: I think it’s really important that we’re telling stories like this. And we’re doing so well.
BB: The show is in a very intimate theater, so I know you can see a lot from the stage. What do you see and feel audiences are really resonating with and what, perhaps, are they missing?
KD: I think a lot of times you have audiences members who come in and they are bracing themselves for something from the door, rather than coming in with an open spirit to experience something moment by moment. So me and the other cast members, because we trust each other so much, really buckle down and tell the story together. And we make it to the end.
Whether the audience is super lively or super quiet, they’re all receiving the same message. I think they’re all being affected. Which to me, makes me very happy. All I want is for people to see themselves.
BB: I’m a professional people watcher, and when I took a moment to scan the audience from time to time I came to the same conclusion. I think people are so engaged. It’s a fresh show. I haven’t seen something (in a long time) where the characters so effectively tell the story with minimal props and set changes, other than The Color Purple. It really allows for the audience to lean into the story. I saw people wiping tears from their eyes. It’s very real. The story transcends race. It’s very specific, but very universal.
KD: Yes. Good.
BB: Now, I do want to talk about your cast. Everyone truly packs a punch. McKinley Belcher III, Clark Peters, Montego Glover, John Lavalle. How has it been working with them?
KD: It’s actually been really, really, really, good. We had a about 2.5 weeks of rehearsal before we had tech, so we got in and I think we had our script in hand for maybe two days and everyone was on one track, riding together to move this forward–so professional and so prepared. We got the chance to really mold this story the way we wanted to. We’ve been jellying and really just putting the juice on it from day one. I’m working with some serious, serious professionals.
BB: Yes, I was so impressed with everyone. Congrats to you on making your NY stage debut.
BB: What have you enjoyed most about your experience working with the show? How have you grown?
KD: You do shows here and you do shows there, and shows come and go. One thing that doesn’t always happen is when you get to tell truly impactful stories and also love everyone you work with. And those are moments that happen in the performers life, that change your life. For me, the experience that I’ve had with these brothers and this sister, and my writer and director, it has literally been a family environment. There was so much love that happened from the door. Telling this story and making this story happen, this important story that I also fell in love with, was so easy and it was life changing. I will forever be changed by this experience. You get a couple of those in my life. This is one that God has blessed me with.
BB: Then thank him! Yes God!
KD: It’s good, it’s so good. When I read it I just wanted to be part of it, one way or another. Let me tell this story. It’s a good one.
BB: Well you’re telling it. Congrats again.
The Royale, directed by Rachel Chavkin, opened March 7, 2016. Catch this seasons’ most significant match through May 1, 2016 at The Lincoln Center. In the meantime, check out the Schomberg Talks discussion moderated by Founder & Editorial Director, Andrew Shade. For more info and to purchase tickets click here.
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.
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