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A Must See

We Were There: A Strange Loop

Jerrica White

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Zoom in past the Popeyes, Tyler Perry plays, and The Color Purple lyrics. Pan across the church pews and teenage boy blues of a “lifestyle” that turns you away from a relationship with God. Focus in on a journey of self love and acceptance. But, don’t look past the rejection and shame of a boy coming of age. Somewhere in the middle of that, you’re in a strange loop.

As part of “New Musicals at 54,” Michael R. Jackson’s A Strange Loop was performed at Feinstein’s 54 Below on April 27, 2016. We had the pleasure of being in the audience.

First thing’s first, this show is hilarious. I found myself laughing and crying at the same time over the soaring harmonies. Specifically, the show chronicles the life of “Usher”, a Black, gay musical theater writer who works as an usher in the back of the house at a long-running Broadway show. This show serves as the literal and metaphorical backdrop for the war he wages against the thoughts in his own head… while struggling to write a self-referential musical called A Strange Loop.

Jackson meets us at the coffee table in our aunts house. In our first apartment. At our day jobs. In our first relationships. He tells a deeply introspective story of finding love and redemption, while navigating our formative years.

Perhaps what I enjoyed most about the night, other than the SAAANGIN’  happening on that stage, was the relatable story. Michael R. Jackson wrote this show for us. Proud, emotive, intelligent, BLACK PEOPLE.

That was his goal.

We found Michael after the show. Overjoyed and filled with love, he said:

I love Black people and I love Black culture and, because I love being black, I also have notes and critiques. We don’t talk about it (homophobia, self love, mental health) as much as we should. If we talk about it more we could have some reconciliation. I wanted to go there assuming Black people would be there and would participate. I want black folks in the room.

Well, I looked around and WE were there nodding our head in unison, clapping our hands in praise.

We relate to the warmth, love, spirituality and, conversely the hate, judgement, and wrath of the Black church. We’ve been on the phone explaining our latest creative endeavors (or lack thereof) to family that doesn’t quite understand. We’ve dealt with blatant racism and homophobia.

The air was heavy with the pride and beauty of knowing and accepting who we really are. As I sit here writing this, I’m still in awe.

I felt so in tune and invested in the story of “Darryl.” Although every note of his story was not in the range of experiences in my life, I knew the songs and I knew the book, in all of its sharp, smart, qwerky, glory.

I asked Jackson what he wants audiences to get from the show and the message was simple: “We are the change that we have been looking for.”

He continued:

I wrote this show with Black eyes and audiences in mind. It isn’t that white eyes can’t watch it, but I wrote it as if the audience was only going to be filled with Black people. I wanted to create that space and experience, because in the business of this, we’re constantly worried about what white people think and it doesn’t have to be our primary concern.

A long contributor to conversations about diversity in theatre, Jackson shows us we can tell our own stories.

Fifteen gay Black men took the stage harmoniously molding the story of one gay Black man with equal parts vulnerability, wit, and rage. And with their help, he told his story.

He wrote this for us, so now it’s our duty to come.

A Strange Loop was developed with the support of Musical Theatre Factory and features Carl Ryan Clemons-Hopkins, Derrick Cobey, Elijah Caldwell, Nathan Lee Graham, Larry Hamilton, Darius Anthony Harper, James Jackson, John-Andrew Morrison, Larry Owens, Cartreze Tucker, Jamaal Clark Turpin, Jason Veasey, and Reggie D. White. Adam Wiggins is the musical director.

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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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