Twenty-four years after it opened at the August Wilson Theatre on Broadway (then named the Virginia Theatre), George C. Wolfe’s universally admired musical Jelly’s Last Jam has been announced for the Signature Theatre’s 2016-2017 season along with a complete list of the cast and creative team.
Headlining the production is Mark G. Meadows, a critically acclaimed jazz pianist and vocalist operating in the Washington, D.C. jazz scene, who will be making his acting debut. Also headlining is Tony-winner Cleavant Derricks (Dreamgirls) as The Chimney Man and Helen Hayes Award-winner Felicia Boswell (Motown the Musical, Memphis) as Anita with Elijah Mayo as Young Jelly, Iyona Blake as Gran Mimi, Guy Lockard as Jack the Bear, V. Savoy McIlwain as Buddy Bolden and Nova Y. Payton, Kara-Tameika Watkins and Eben Logan as The Hunnies. The ensemble is rounded out by Chris Broughton, DeWitt Fleming, Olivia Russell, DeMoya Watson Brown, Joseph Monroe Webb and Stephen Scott Wormley.
The ragtime biographical musical about the life and times of Ferdinand Joseph LaMothe (aka Jelly Roll Morton), which was penned by Wolfe and Susan Birkenhead and features the music of Morton (with additional tunes by Luther Henderson), will be directed by Matthew Gardiner, choreographed by Jared Grimes (After Midnight), musical directed by Darius Smith and feature costume design by Dede M. Ayite.
Jelly’s Last Jam according to a press statement from the Signature Theatre, “tells the story of one of jazz music’s pioneers with a jazz, blues, and ragtime score based on Jelly Roll Morton’s original music. Journey from the back alleys of New Orleans to the dance halls of Chicago to the stages of New York with ’he who drinks from the vine of syncopation’ in a sizzling memoir of pride, lust and a past denied.”
“George C. Wolfe and Susan Birkenhead’s musical was a game changer in the American musical theatre when in premiered on Broadway in 1992,” said director Matthew Gardiner in a statement. “It’s a musical that I’ve loved for years and it has one of the most beautifully rendered and complex characters ever written for the musical theatre in Jelly Roll Morton. When I met Mark G. Meadows, I knew I found our Jelly. A remarkable jazz pianist and vocalist from Washington DC, he is one of the most exhilarating talents I’ve ever encountered. I am so excited to reimagine this piece with a phenomenal jazz artist, alongside Broadway’s Felicia Boswell, Cleavant Derricks and a brilliant company of actors. I’m also thrilled to collaborate with choreographer Jared Grimes, who will pull tap dance into the story in new ways. This vibrant and important story is one I can’t wait to share with Signature audiences.”
Jelly’s Last Jam made its premiered at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles in 1991 and starred Tony nominated actor Obba Babatundé (Dreamgirls, “Miss Evers’ Boys”) in the lead role before it transferred to Broadway in 1992. It earned 11 Tony nominations, including Best Book, Best Score, Best Choreography and Best Director. Tap dancing legend Gregory Hines and theatre diva Tonya Pinkins took home accolades in the Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical and Best Performance by a Featured Actor in a Musical categories, respectively. The show also took home six Drama Desk Award trophies.
Both Wolfe and Birkenhead have spoken about the difficulty of casting the show over the years, particularly with the casting of the lead role, which calls from a “light-skinned” actor who can both sing, tap and/or play piano. In a 2015 editorial, Pinkins noted that “Jelly‘s path to Broadway and multiple-award winning fame was as a circuitous as Morton’s life,” clarified that one of the key reason the original production standout was Hines’ ability to infuse “his own inimitable hoofer style with George’s concept of tap dance as a metaphor for interior monologue.”
Jelly’s Last Jam will be presented August 2 through September 11 within the MAX Theatre at the Signature Theatre in Arlington, VA. Single tickets are available in person at the Signature Box Office at 4200 Campbell Avenue in Shirlington, by calling (703) 820-9771 and online at www.sigtheatre.org.
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.