The New York Pops will present a concert at Carnegie Hall like no other November 13, when its 78-piece orchestra celebrates groundbreaking Black women jazz artists. Led by music director and conductor Steven Reineke, Sophisticated Ladies will feature Montego Glover, Capathia Jenkins and Sy Smith.
The concert pays tribute to Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan and Dinah Washington and ultimately commemorates the centennial year of the birth of Billie Holiday – who played Carnegie Hall for the first time in 1948, at age 33, to a sold-out crowd. She returned eight years later to perform two more concerts before packed audiences. Holiday’s career has illustrated her musical sophistication as noted by jazz legend Wynton Marsalis for Time/Life’s “100 Years of Lady Day.”
Jazz legend Wynton Marsalis talks about the artistic vision of Billie Holiday on her 100th birthday
In its 33rd season, the New York Pops – the largest independent pop orchestra in the United States and the only professional symphonic orchestra specializing in popular music – continues to offer a unique experience with each concert, with influences ranging from Broadway melodies to film scores, jazz, rock, pop and everything in between. This time it is all that jazz, and Reineke has called it “an absolute knockout.”
It means the world to be a part of Sophisticated Ladies and paying tribute to Ella, Sarah, Billie and Dinah. These are icons in music and jazz, and in our culture. The legacy is so grand and huge and continues to give. We reap the benefits of them, Montego Glover said. Each woman has a long and strong legacy in music as icons. In African-American culture particularly, they stand as such examples as icons. The inventiveness and the talent that they use in the rendering in their music is so infectious and relatable but unique. It makes them each unique and one of a kind. They live in their own space.
Capathia Jenkins, who has worked with Glover in Broadway Inspirational Voices, agreed. “I’m really excited about the notion of three Black women today celebrating these Black jazz artists that have come before us. They’re the reason we get to do what we do today. I’m excited about the notion of that. We stood on their shoulders to get here. They each brought a certain thing to the table.”
Each of the guest artists, specifically selected by Reineke, bring a certain thing to the table in their own right.
Glover, a Tony nominee and award-winning artist who made her Broadway debut in The Color Purple, is currently starring as “Fantine” in Les Miserables at Imperial Theatre.
“Performing at Carnegie Hall was a bucket list item,” she said, “and now I’m doing it for the second or third time. New York Pops is one of the best pop orchestras in the country. I’m grateful that Les Miserables is allowing me to take time to do it.”
Prior to her current role, Glover co-starred in the original Broadway musical It Shoulda Been You. She originated the starring role of “Felicia Farrell” in the Tony winning Memphis and received a Tony nomination for Lead Actress in a Musical as well as a Drama League nomination; she won Outer Critics Circle and Drama Desk awards.
Jenkins has appeared as a soloist with symphony orchestras nationally and internationally including The Cleveland Orchestra; the Cincinnati and Philly pops orchestras; the National Symphony Orchestra; and the Hong Kong and Calgary philharmonic orchestras. She also is featured on the soundtracks for “Smash” (Seasons 1 and 2), Nine, Chicago, Mission to Mars and Legally Blonde 2. Her Broadway credits include: Newsies; Martin Short: Fame Becomes Me; Caroline, or Change; The Look of Love; and The Civil War. She received a Drama Desk nomination for (mis)Understanding Mammy: The Hattie McDaniel Story.
Sy Smith – who has been a backing vocalist for Whitney Houston, Chaka Khan and Meshelle Ndegeocello, a supporting vocalist on “American Idol,” and part of Rickey Minor’s band on “The Tonight Show with Jay Leno” as well as the Grammy-nominated Foreign Exchange – is an indie-soul recording artist with four critically acclaimed albums. In September, she garnered an Emmy nod for Best Original Music/Lyrics with “Welcome Back (All My Soulmates)” for the HBO film Dancing. She also received two nominations for Best Supporting Actress in a Musical/Comedy from the NAACP Theatre Awards for her roles in If You Don’t Believe and Body Language.
Broadway Black had the exclusive opportunity to speak with both Glover and Jenkins, who discussed the artists to whom they will pay tribute. Glover said she likens her musical style to Fitzgerald. “I am such an admirer of her. The instrumentality of her voice. She likes to scat across space the way a horn would. The terrific phrasing of music. She took whole lines and beats and made them new every time.” While Jenkins said she is not a scatter herself, she revealed Fitzgerald blows her mind with the way she could scat.
In describing Washington, Glover noted her “sparkly quality, like a wonderful bubble across the music.” Jenkins is inspired by her “raw tone” and that she “was so sure of herself, in her body and who she was.” Yet Jenkins’ feels her most parallel artist is Vaughan, who Glover said “had such a fullness and whimsical nature to her singing.”
“I think of Sarah as hot, molten chocolate,” Jenkins explained. “The tone of her voice is like ‘oh my God.’ She taught me a lot of jazz standards. She is a very kindred spirit to me. I like to learn the ink off the page. I know she was inevitably singing the melody and then makes it her own.”
Just as Holiday recognized “no two people on earth are alike, and it’s got to be that way in music or it isn’t music,” the New York Pops will indeed bring the most sophisticated ladies in jazz to the stage – with Holiday serving as the foundation.
“Billie is the crooner to me. There was a weeping, whining quality in her voice that is enchanting,” Glover admired. “I didn’t understand her at 12 years old the way I do now. What was really behind her singing and her voice and the way the sounds come out of her.”
Influenced by Louis Armstrong and Bessie Smith, Holiday pioneered a vocal style that manipulated phrasing and tempo.
“I’ve never thought of Billie as having great tone or range,” Jenkins admitted, “but the way she can phrase, she can do it conversationally. You can hear everything she had gone through in her life, whatever emotions there were. She sang from her gut. You can’t learn that. It just is. I listen to her for phrasing and truth telling.”
Holiday’s truth consists of much good, bad and ugly. Nevertheless, her legacy is one that proves “nobody sings the word ‘hunger’ like I do or the word ‘love.’”
“It’s going to be a great night,” Jenkins said, “and I’m so excited that the New York Pops has decided to celebrate these great Black women. So let’s sit back and relax and celebrate!”
The two-hour event will begin at 8pm, with one 20-minute intermission. Click HERE for more information about the concert.
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.