Queen Latifah may be portraying the all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful Wizard of Oz and Mary J. Blige the Wicked Witch of the West for NBC’s “The Wiz Live!,” but in real life both artists are powerful in their own right. In a Broadway Black exclusive interview, Queen Latifah and Blige talk about how The Wiz – a 1975 Tony Award winning musical – has empowered them and how they hope the production will speak to today’s generation.
Queen Latifah, also known as Dana Owens, realized that a role primarily played by a male is perfect for her. Having been raised by a strong mother and other strong women, Queen Latifah noted, “I have been doing things to empower women my entire career before I even attached the word feminism to it.” She also was encouraged by the men in her life. “The male feminists in my life, too, who told me I could do it: ‘Get out there, Dana, go ‘head.’”
From rapper to entrepreneur, jazz singer to actor and talk show host, Queen Latifah as “The Wiz” is not a stretch and in line with how producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron – who also produced NBC’s “Sound of Music” and “Peter Pan” as well as the 2002 film Chicago – challenge traditional Broadway.
“It was not shocking to me because I know Neil and Craig,” said Queen Latifah, who played Matron Mama Morton in the Chicago film, “and I know they are not traditional people. They traditionally respect Broadway, but they are not traditional thinkers. Chicago was not the Broadway version of Chicago…. It had to be reimagined and you had to have producers who were open-minded enough to allow it to be imagined through the lens of (director) Rob Marshall at that time and Kenny Leon right now. And so it really speaks to who we are right now. We want to tell this version of The Wiz.”
Queen Latifah and Blige join Ne-Yo, Elijah Kelley, Uzo Aduba, Amber Riley, Common and newcomer Shanice Williams, among others to tell a new version of the Kenny Leon-directed Wiz, which features new songs by Harvey Fierstein and is co-produced by Cirque du Soleil’s stage theatrical division.
“I want to see Mary J. Blige play Evillene. That’s my Evillene. And this will be the Evillene for this generation and this time,” Queen Latifah said. “And it’s very exciting to me. Ne-Yo. I’ve been watching Ne-Yo write things for years, produce records for years, sing, remind me of Michael Jackson for years. But this is my Tin Man…. When I see him, his body, the way he moves, the way he sings, that’s Tin Man to me. So he’s this generation’s Tin Man.”
When Blige received a call from her management (Flava Unit Entertainment, which was founded by Queen Latifah and Shakim Compere in 1995, and has produced Bessie, Steel Magnolias and Just Wright) about the opportunity, she screamed. Before knowing her role, she told Compere that the good witch wasn’t for her; she wanted to be the evil witch, Evillene. “This is a person we can all recognize, but we keep in back of us. We don’t want that person in front of us running our lives,” Blige said. However, she has enjoyed acting like a terrible and self-centered person.
“I was excited just to be a part of it,” said the Queen of Hip Hop Soul, who has been in the Black Nativity (2013) and Rock of Ages (2012) musical films. “Because it’s The Wiz, and it did so much for us. It encouraged us and inspired us to be better, to know what we have in us to know we have what it takes to make it in the world. It’s one of the reasons why we are here. It’s the reason why I’m here right now.”
Celebrating its 40th year, The Wiz – with its many installments over the years – has inspired many generations and especially Black audiences. The 2015 version will include refinements, courtesy the creative team headed up by Leon and Fierstein.
“It’s just very exciting to see this whole thing imagined for today’s audience and today’s time. And we get to go out there and have the great honor of presenting it and kicking ass,” said Queen Latifah, who has discovered the very essence of herself from the production’s creative process. “Drama teachers in schools across America gonna be like, ‘Ok, how can we put this on stage. We want this version on stage with the new songs and the new movements.’”
Both have learned a lot from the cast and creative team. Blige said, “It’s beautiful. It’s a lot of love and support. Everyone is there for one another. I’m not like your seasoned actress. I’m learning and getting my feet wet still. So I’m bumbling and fumbling and stumbling and messing up in front of everyone…. they’re coming to my rescue and giving me compliments when I’m doing good as well. So it’s love, a lot of love.”
It also is a lot of pressure and stress, knowing that the show is live and a one-time-only event. “It’s not under control,” Blige said, “but that’s not what we need to think about. It will be under control on that day. That’s it.”
When “The Wiz Live!” airs Dec. 3 on NBC, millions of people will tune in as they have done for the network’s other live theatrical offerings. For the youth that will tune in, Queen Latifah has some wishes of her own she would like granted.
“I would like for their imaginations to run wild. I just want for them if they see anything that connects to them, you know, whether it’s from the acting to the singing to the costumes to the lighting to the way sets change to anything that they relate to that they feel ‘Maybe I can do that.’… I want them to be inquisitive. I want them to be fascinated by what they saw. First of all, I just want them to love it and to be in it for the journey. If they are fascinated in any way shape or form by anything they see and it speaks to the talent they may have inside, I want that talent to be unlocked. I don’t care if they are in a foster home watching this, or they’re in a mansion in Calabasas, I want whatever their creativity is to be unlocked and unleashed so that 15 years later or 20 years later they’re… following their dreams and bringing more creativity to the world.
“We need that hope. We need that fresh eyes on things. We need fresh minds to approach things, you know, to approach life. Or maybe it’s even the politics of how this whole thing works. Or how maybe they’re not living the life, the real life they should be living. Maybe something in there touches someone, and that’s the greatest hope for me.”
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.