There’s an ongoing joke in my family that if I could stay in school forever I would, simply because I love to learn, just not always in the traditional sense. Sometimes it takes beyond a classroom to truly learn and live something, that’s what Amazing Grace taught me, amongst other things. Written by Christopher Smith, Amazing Grace tells the true story behind one of the world’s most beloved song that I grew to love and learn from an early age, I just never knew where it came from. Amazing Grace does just that, it not only teaches you the songs rich origin, but it also makes the words come to life right before your very eyes.
Before the show began, the set was an image of the British flag plastered on a scrim, that dissolved into silhouettes of dancing women to the sounds of an upbeat drum as the lights dimmed and the show began. The scene changes drastically as the silhouettes that were once joyous, raise their hands overhead and ropes come down. Almost immediately I told myself, oh it’s about to get real. And real it got, there were scenes that were downright uncomfortable for me to watch, because I was angry about the historic event that was played with so much truth right before me. Thanks to my history and black studies classes, I know all about the slave auction, but the rawness of that scene truly moved me in a way I hadn’t known before. The actors gave 100% of their all to play the disparity and anguish that our ancestors had to go through.
Speaking of the cast, they were particularly solid having 100% of the company transferred from the Chicago run to the Broadway debut, a rarity. The show featured powerful performances by all involved, though Chuck Cooper, Laiona Michelle, and Harriett D. Foy stood out to me most.
Tony Award Winner and Broadway vet Chuck Cooper brings enormous strength and subtle vulnerability to his character Thomas whose purpose in the musical is meaningful and enlightening. In particular his solo, “Nowhere Left To Run” rendered me speechless.
The moment Harriett D. Foy appears on stage as Princess Peyai, she is a force to be reckoned with. Moving about the stage, slithering almost snakelike, her sultry movements and vivacious attitude draw you in almost immediately. You find yourself wanting to root for her, even if she was technically one of the antagonists.
In her Broadway debut, Laiona Michelle was such a joy to watch and brought me to tears more than once. Her performance as Nanna, servant to Erin Mackeys Mary, was an astonishing one. Her solo “Daybreak” gave me absolute chills, as she sang out into the audience, I could feel her pain, I felt her joy, I felt her hope.
Did I mention the set? There’s a moment, I won’t ruin it, before intermission that makes you question whether or not you are in the Nederlander Theatre or watching a 3D movie. So much attention to detail was given not only in the set but in lighting, costumes, hair and even the fight/military movement.
When the cast finally sang amazing Grace it all made sense, everything came full circle. Suddenly there was more weight to those words than there was before. After watching the story unfold before my eyes those past two hours, the words they finally sang at the end became richer and more urgent. Truly, it was a treat to sit in those seats and experience the moving piece of theater that was Amazing Grace.
I highly recommend this show for anyone who wants to learn about a historic song in such a unique way. I’m even tempted to take some of my students in the fall!
The show is officially open on Broadway and tickets can be purchased here, by calling 877-250-2929, or in person at the Nederlander Theatre Box Office (208 W. 41st St., btwn 7th & 8th Aves.)
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.