When the jazzy Shuffle Along opened on Broadway in May 1921, I imagine the thrill could have been likened to the 2008 U.S. Election night. A night where the world experienced Democratic Party nominee Senator Barack Obama becoming the first African-American president.
It was a time that was “roaring,” right? World War I and the depression following it was over, and an economic boom was in the works. The emancipation of slavery had 56 years under its belt. The Great White Way was abuzz with as many as 50 new musicals that would open in a single season. Enthusiastic patrons were willing to shell out top dollar for a seat.
Shuffle Along became an instantaneous hit as the first major production to be produced, written and performed entirely by African Americans since the George Walker–Bert Williams Bandanna Land (1908). Before that it was the 1902 In Dahomey, also featuring Walker and Williams. Shuffle Along, however, served as a hallmark to the Harlem Renaissance, contributed to the desegregation of theatres (with Black patrons allowed in orchestra seats rather than restricted to the balcony), and set the stage for nine more African-American musicals by 1924.
The Noble Sissle–Eubie Blake musical – so popular that police created a one-way thoroughfare to the 63rd Street Music Hall to ease the traffic jams – ran for an unprecedented 504 performances through July 1922. Poet Langston Hughes, whose first poem was the 1921 “A Negro Speaks of Rivers,” was among the many repeat attendees. He was so enthralled with the “honey of a show” that he wrote:
“The 1920s were the years of Manhattan’s Black Renaissance…. Certainly it was the musical revue, Shuffle Along, that gave a scintillating send-off to that Negro vogue in Manhattan…. People came back to see it innumerable times. It was always packed…. When I saw it, I was thrilled and delighted…. It gave just the proper push – a pre-Charleston kick – to that Negro vogue of the ‘20s, that spread to books, African sculpture, music and dancing.”
So, when the vintage graphics were revealed for the Shuffle Along website, liken my excitement to all the above for what will mark a 95th anniversary of the pioneering work.
To see the colorfully billed star-quality names – Audra McDonald, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Billy Porter, Brandon Victor Dixon and Joshua Henry (in an alternating palette of lemon, orange, red and sea green) – my heart did a Charleston flutter reminiscent of when the actors were announced they would share the stage. I grinned looking at “Savion Glover” and “George C. Wolfe” next to the words “choreographed by” and “directed by,” respectively. The duo meet again for the first time since Bring in ‘da Noise/Bring in ‘da Funk.
Full Cast: Adrienne Warren, Darius de Haas, Felicia Boswell, Christian Dante White, Brooks Ashmanskas, Amber Iman, Phillip Attmore, C.K. Edwards, Afra Hines,Curtis Holland, Adrienne Howard, Kendrick Jones, Lisa LaTouche, Alicia Lundgren, J.C. Montgomery, Erin N. Moore, Janelle Neal, Brittany Parks,Arbender Robinson, Karissa Royster, Britton Smith, Zurin Villanueva, J.L. Williams, Pamela Yasutake, and Richard Riaz Yoder, as previously reported
The 2016 revival of Shuffle Along or The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed isn’t set to showcase its “glamour” and “hotcha” until April at the Music Box Theatre. April 21 to be exact, with previews to begin March 14. But people are ready.
The Tony-winning Wolfe, who offers up a new book from the original vaudeville comedians F.E. Miller and Aubrey Lyles, has called Shuffle Along, “the real juice… the real spark, not Black performers performing White people’s vision of Black people.” However, the original show has been critiqued as relying on minstrel stereotypes (Miller and Lyles would even perform in burnt-cork blackface). In fact, a character’s line went something to the effect that the lighter the skin, the more desirable an African American woman.
The musical launched the careers of Josephine Baker, Florence Mills and Adelaide Louise Hall; it featured an impressive 16-woman chorus line; and obliterated taboos with a Black love story being front and center.
For 2015-2016, Broadway will have perhaps its most diverse season (Amazing Grace; Hamilton; The Gin Game; The Color Purple; and Children of a Lesser God) and chances to establish the ever-evasive but always needed renaissance. Whatever you must do to be part of it, don’t drag your feet.
Visit shufflealongbroadway.com to enter your email for news and updates. Tickets go on sale Sept. 12.
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.