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Laughing It Up with Ne-Yo, Elijah Kelley & David Alan Grier

Broadway Black

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They really might be the three best friends that anybody could have.  And even more, family.

Broadway Black had a chance to catch up with Ne-Yo, Elijah Kelley and David Alan Grier last week to talk about preparing for their roles as Tin Man, Scarecrow and the Lion, respectively, for the television event of the SEASON, “The Wiz LIVE!”

While Neyo has appeared in films such as “Stomp the Yard” and “Red Tails” he admits there was a bit of trepidation stepping into a theater role, but having his “Red Tails” costar, Kelly, around helped ease the transition.

“I was a little nervous, because I’ve never done anything theater before so to have somebody that I know definitely helped out.  Then, once I got in there with everybody…we’re all family.”

Ne-Yo noted, that to prepare for this role he had to do a bit of research on the story, it’s origin, and take a step back to get a more expansive grasp on the role.

“I sat down and thought about who the character would be in 2015, because this is not based in the 70’s.  Just trying to figure out who the Tin Man would be in 2015, because he wouldn’t be a woodsman, he may be a construction worker.  I felt like, just with the change of the times, it would be different than what Nipsey Russell did.”

When asked what he’s learned from his first musical theater experience, Ne-Yo and his co-stars chuckled as he responded, “I’ve learned that the way it’s written in the script is literally just the tip of the iceberg. Working with Kenny Leon, he makes you think of the origin of the action.”

“I’ve also learned that David Alan Grier is an absolute prima donna,” he says jokingly.

To which Grier retorts, “You got a bodyguard!  How you gon’ give direction to a man with a bodyguard?!”

From jump it’s clear that Broadway vet and “In Living Color” alum Grier is still the residential funny man, exuding charisma, humor and wisdom that is sure to beguile when he takes on the beloved role of the Cowardly Lion.

“Everyday…it sounds corny…everyday is so great.  The greatest joy,” Grier says peacefully.  “I never knew Neyo. I never knew Elijah Kelley.  When we come to rehearsal, we grind as a company.  It takes humility.  It takes all of us surrendering control, because you gotta have a leader.  It’s kind of like leading an army.  So we can’t all be trying to lead.”

If the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade was any indication, the army seems to be ready for battle.  Featuring Cirque Du Soleil performers, rocking orchestrations and brilliant choreography by renowned choreographer Fatima Robinson, the show-stopping number had everyone aching in anticipation for Thursday’s full production.  Who may not be as excited about it?  The cast.

“Brand New Day is easily one of the longest and most difficult routines in the whole thing.  A lot of choreography,” Neyo explained before Kelley interjected. “Gotta be in the right place at the right time or you might get kicked.”

Luckily the pair was able to shake off that anxiety when they joined forces to create the new original song “We Got It” for the upcoming production.

Ne-Yo explained, “There’s a part where the four friends all find out that in order for their wishes to be granted by The Wiz they have to kill the Wicked Witch of the West.  So it’s like, we finally get here, we’ve done so much to get here to meet The Wiz, and our dreams are right there but the only thing in the way is literally an impossible feat.”

“Kenny was telling us that originally there was never a song that spoke to that moment,” he continued.  “I had to not factor in that I was writing for ‘The Wiz,’ because when you say this is a song that’s gonna be incorporated in the iconic and historic story of ‘The Wiz,’ nothing you do is good enough.  So it’s like ‘let me take that off, read the notes and do exactly what’s being asked of me.’  So that’s what we did and the song came out amazing.”

When Grier jokingly asked if Kelley bogarted his way into co-writing with Ne-Yo, Kelley explained that the collaboration has been a long time coming.

“Every time I see him it’s just like ‘we gotta do something legendary.’  God granted that wish.”

With the mass of the chords by Kelley, orchestrations by Harvey Mason Jr. and lyrics by Neyo, “We Got It” “just became this thing.”

“And that’s how the three of us wrote that song,” Grier playfully inserts in true Grier fashion as the dynamic trio quickly move on to prepare for the rest of their journey.

Watch them take that journey with us when “The Wiz! Live” premieres on NBC Thursday, Dec. 3 at 8p.m.

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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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Twitter: @BroadwayBlack

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