Broadway Black was on the scene Saturday night at LIU’s Billie Holiday Theatre for the premiere of Richard Wesley’s political drama, Autumn.
As the country gears up for an intense presidential election, issues like race, gender, class and age creep into the national conversation. Autumn explores the conflicts that arise when aspirations collide across generational, racial and gender divides marking sharply different political agendas against the needs of the people.
Helping to bring Autumn to life is a “director’s dream” cast of stage, TV and film heavy weights including Jerome Preston Bates as the fast-talking, ego-driven mayor, Pauletta Pearson Washington (yes, Denzel’s Pauletta) as his fed up wife, Count Stovall playing the begrudged confidante, Dorian Crossmond Missick as the moral-stricken protege and standout newcomer Lekethia Dalcoe as a struggling mother battling a corrupt and hypocritical system.
“I had no idea who was attached to the show,” shared actor and playwright Dalcoe. “But I’m also a writer, and I’ve been saying ‘I only want to choose work that feeds me not only as an actor, but as a writer as well.’ Autumn has given me that and more.”
After the performance, guests were invited to a private reception where we spotted Denzel and Pauletta’s son and “Ballers” actor John Washington, Raisin in the Sun Tony nominee LaTanya Richardson Jackson and Missick’s wife, more recently known for her role as Misty Knight, Simone Cook.
While Director Walter Dallas was on hand to discuss the benefits of having a living playwright on hand to “take the guess-work out of it,” writer Wesley attributed much of the outcome to the phenomenal cast.
“Its been very helpful to me because I’ve gotten other aspects of the play. You hear the play one way when you’re writing it, but then when you see it in performance and actors have taken it on and they bring their own experiences and individual ideas to the script and suddenly because of that you start seeing things you haven’t seen before.”
Autumn runs at the Kumble Theater at LIU in residence for The Billie Holiday Theatre through Sunday, November 6. For tickets, visit KumbleTheater.org.
We Were There: The House That Will Not Stand — Review
Entering New York Theater Workshop’s modest space for a fourth performance of Marcus Gardley’s hilarious and powerful The House That Will Not Stand, one is greeted by Beyonce Knowles Carter, shouting out anthems of Black female empowerment and independence. One cannot help but think that the production’s talented director, Lileana Blain Cruz, has intentionally drawn a line from Mrs. Carter, an iconic, beautiful, fair-skinned artist and businesswoman of today, back to her phenotypical sisters in 1813 New Orleans, where “House” is set. And what a great distance playwright Gardley has traveled with this historical comic-drama, infused with a mash-up of contemporary and 19th-century language. Mr. Gardley’s facility with language has been compared with that of Lorca, mixed with Tennessee Williams. He is a master of word-play and operates in diverse theatrical modes.
Thus far Gardley has been produced more in London, and U.S. regional theaters, than in NYC. I hope that “House” will alter this unfortunate circumstance. His X, or Betty Shabazz v. the Nation (The Acting Company) and The Box (The Foundry Theater) are both engaging works seen earlier in NYC. “House” (2011) arrives in NYC after outings in London, Yale Rep. (where I first caught it a few years ago) and various other regional theaters. The text has been re-worked since Yale. Thankfully, the NYTW production retains the ultra-talented Harriett D. Foy, peerless in the critical role of Makeda, a slave desperate to win her freedom. Foy’s unforgettable performance makes “House” essential theater-going.
With the Louisiana purchase in 1803, the French custom of wealthy White men taking fair-skinned Black, common law wives – – the system of plaçage – – was dying out in New Orleans. Under this system, Black women and their children could live comparatively comfortably, own property and even enjoy certain rights of inheritance. Yet, in 1813 these customs were changing. With U.S. ownership, plaçage could easily become chattel slavery for unfortunate women of color and their bi-racial children. For as the play’s matriarch, Beartrice Albans (a stern and stellar Lynda Gravátt) says, she does not want any of her three daughters to become common-law wives, as plaçage is also a form of slavery. And Beatrice Albans should know. The play opens with the death of her White husband, Lazare, and for the first time in her life there is the prospect of greater freedom. Lazare has left the house and other significant property to Beatrice, but U.S. law has now interceded. And so everything goes to Lazare’s White wife, who bore him no children.
How will Beatrice win out and maintain a home for her three daughters – – Odette (Joniece Abbott-Pratt), Maude Lynn (Juliana Canfield) and Agnes (Nedra McClyde), her mad sister Maria (Michelle Wilson), and loyal slave-servant Makeda (Harriett D. Foy)? Especially with Beatrice’s arch-enemy Madam La Veuve (an effective and bitingly funny Marie Thomas) waiting to buy Beatrice’s house if she cannot come up with the Biblical twenty pieces of silver to buy it back from Lazare’s White wife.
Loosely based on Lorca’s “The House of Bernarda Alba,” this production of “House” has many things to recommend it. Fine direction by Ms. Blain Cruz; sumptuous costumes by Montana Levi Blanco; realistic wigs by Cookie Jordan; and a beautiful set by Adam Rigg. NYTW has put forth a rich production that captures the grandeur of Gardley’s script. “House” is an engaging history lesson. The custom of plaçage reminds us of the variation in slave experience, a fact now more widely understood given the academy’s decades-long exploration of the institution of slavery. That chattel slavery in the U.S. quickly became defined based on color, with blackness being intentionally chained to disadvantage, still haunts the nation today. Gardley rejects the lie of black inferiority in writing that is muscular, lyrical and spiritual. He gives his most ardent and gorgeous words to Makeda, a dark slave who, astonishingly, knows the true worth of her blackness – – it is priceless. “Come again! Black ain’t never been ugly. Half the world’s black and God ain’t never made half a mistake. He hung the stars in the black sky because the blackness is brilliant, not the stars.”
With a storm coming and Lazare’s ghost haunting the house, two of Beatrice’s daughters sneak out to the annual ball to find White common-law husbands. Sister Maria’s madness is traced back to a true love, a drummer, now dead, who she met in Congo Square (a famous area in New Orleans where slaves were permitted to congregate and enjoy music buoyed by drums). Maria is a dark woman, but self-hate led her to reject her drummer, as he was “black as midnight.” But his rhythms still beat in her blood, and she is led back to his arms by a grand aria first written especially for Ms. Foy while the play was in production at Yale. “Then you seeing your soul. You seeing where your blackness began. There. Where Indians carved a square with their feet. Way back when. And danced secrets into the soil that confuse many a folk now. For they knew what we will never know: How to slow a hurry-cane. How to tear loose a tornado. How to grab hold a quake, rock to its beat so as to not lose your footing….On this sacred earth of Congo Square. Here, where they let us keep the drum. Hear it! It be the sway in a Negro woman’s hip. The shuffle in a colored man’s stride. The beat be the blackest thing alive. Wake up! See how we survived.”
Ms. Foy has drawn uniformly superlative reviews – – “remarkable” (New York Times), “gloriously dynamic” (Vulture), “heartbreaking” (Hollywood Reporter), “wonderful” (Time Out New York), “a stunning performance” (Village Voice). However, no review has yet appropriately described the depth, breadth and full arch of her unforgettable performance. Ms. Foy renders her unique artistry in four movements. She moves from farce to tragedy in the course of two hours. In the first scene Ms. Foy channels a humor the mixes Carol Burnett with camp, drawing laughs from the audience as she “pours the tea,” literally and physically – – gossiping about Lazare’s death to La Veuve. In act two, Foy is called on to impersonate Lazare via a voodo spell. Ms. Foy’s work here is eerily convincing. Next comes her big aria announcing the play’s central themes – – the beauty of blackness, the richness of the drum, the importance of Congo Square and the history of the middle passage. It is spoken, danced, sung and conjured by Ms. Foy with such artistry that I predict hers will be the definitive performance of the role. Finally, when Makeda is manumitted, Ms. Foy proves a powerful dramatic artist. As she leaves the house, taking her first steps as a free person, Ms. Foy’s Makeda slowly speaks the words of a Negro Spiritual (“Shine on me Lord”). She leaves the audience breathless. Ms. Foy takes us from high comedy to piercing drama in the course of an evening. It is simply one of the most astounding theater performances I have ever seen.
I have seen this production four times. And I plan to see it again because each time I am transported. I urge you to secure tickets quickly. The production has been extended, but only through August 19.
We Were There: Pipeline at Lincoln Center Theater
We real cool. We
Left school. We
Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We
Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We
Jazz June. We
In 1960 Pulitzer Prize winner Gwendolyn Brooks’ haunting crescendo from innocence to downfall, “We Real Cool,” was published by Harpers. In 2017 Dominique Morisseau humanizes and harmonizes with the Youth experience by following a similarly eerie trajectory, in her newest play “Pipeline.”
Walking into the Mitzie E. Newhouse theater and being met with the familiarity of harsh fluorescent lights and institutional cement block walls, will humble you. For 90 minutes of your life, you’re back in a classroom and the choice is yours on who is going to be your instructor. Enter Nya (a sharp and haunting Karen Pittman), an inner-city public school teacher and mother. Enter Omari (a brilliantly magnetic, Namir Smallwood) a private school attendee and son. Both professors in their own right, they quarter 90 minutes across the war zone of a mother whose every move is to protect her son and a son who’s fighting to deflect the de-humanizing compartmentalization of his surroundings. The title of the play, “Pipeline,” is a direct reference to the national trend where students are funneled through a pipeline from school to prison due to zero tolerance policies which criminalize over minor infractions.
If Morisseau wasn’t already on your radar, look now. Where there could have been didactic language, there’s deep dialogue. Where we’d normally see over-explanation to compensate for a lack of understanding the Black experience, we see compassion. Morisseau lays a genuine and raw foundation for the voices of her characters to sing from. She fleshes out everyday heroes—mothers, fathers, teachers (Brava, Tasha Lawrence! A standout.), students, and security guards (a charming Jaime Lincoln Smith) –who are all just trying to do the right thing.
Lileana Blain-Cruz’s direction and staging is the microphone that amplifies the tight harmonies and arrangements between this stunning 6-member cast. Within this composition, the duets resonate the loudest. That is the poetic, song-like exchanges that Morisseau has penned in the sweeping, full-range of emotion and complication that makes up the key of humanity, that we confuse as dialogue.
Father + Son
Mother + Son
Mother + Father
We are reminded that life isn’t easy, family isn’t perfect, and resolution isn’t promised. We’re reminded that life isn’t promised.
The interactions between Omari and his girlfriend Jasmine (a passionate and wise, Heather Velazquez) move me the most. Too often we dismiss the validity of feelings such as love or fear, based on age and experience. Morisseau gives the voice of our youth bass and credibility.
If this play was a thesis, I gather it postulates, why do we not see people for the entire human being they are? Why do we not take the time to understand the factors behind circumstance?
Omari’s classroom violence. Xavier (Morocco Omari) and Nya’s failed marriage. Nya’s crippling anxiety. Xavier’s absentee fatherhood. Nya’s infidelity. None of these events stand alone. The question now is: do we take this story as a mere page out of a textbook, or a reminder on how to live life through a lens of radical empathy?
Pipeline doesn’t seek to answer large questions for us, rather it invites us into the classroom to be part of this eloquent and intelligent debate.
Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater
Written by Dominique Morisseau; Directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz
Set design by Matt Saunders, costume design by Montana Blanco, lighting design by Yi Zhao, sound design by Justin Ellington.
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission.
Pipeline will run through August 27, 2017
We Were There: “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and the Beauty in Summer Love
There are several reasons that summer love is so enticing. Whether it be the prospect of having an electric attraction with someone or the short lived nature of a fling, summer love is sure to encompass good times at a fast, flirty pace. All that and more is what you should expect from The Public Theater’s, Shakespeare in the Park A Midsummer Night’s Dream. A midsummer tale of love gone right after going wrong and the beauty in both, because love can be tricky like that.
When Puck (Kristine Nielson), the meddling sprite whose not all there and a little too interested in having a good time accidentally drugs the wrong young Athenian male, “fair ladies” battle it out sumo style. Titania, the fairy queen (played by Broadway Black legend Phylicia Rashad) falls in love with a literal ass (Danny Burstein), and everyone in between is spellbound throughout. At first you think Lysander (Kyle Beltran) only has eyes for Hermia (Shalita Grant)- poor Helena (Annaleigh Ashford)! But then he falls for Helena, poor Hermia! But then Demetrius falls for Helena as well- poor Hermia, again! Poor every courtier whose fallen victim to Puck’s magical negligence. It’s all so rivetingly confusing and captivatingly annoying that Puck had one job and couldn’t get it right. Equal parts touching and humorous as any romantic comedy should be, yet you can’t help but think that it’s all so beautiful. Literally, it is breathtaking to watch Helena and Hermia fight over the men they love in yellow and orange crop tops and blue and teal puffy skirts under a canopy of trees adorned in fairy lights.
Praise for an overwhelmingly colorful show! I mean that in more ways than one, from the costumes designed by Clint Ramos (In Transit)- Hippolyta’s (De’Adre Aziza) wedding dress will remind you of a certain modern day goddess- to the scenic design by David Rockwell (She Loves Me). Original music and orchestrations by Justin Levine (Love’s Labour’s Lost) complimented by the enchanting Marcelle Davies-Lashley, down to the casting which is extremely pertinent given recent events surrounding the casting of Black actors. The announcement of Okieriete “Oak” Onaodowan’s (Hamilton) departure from The Great Comet after a two week run, where it would appear the producers were ill prepared to handle more than one Black lead at a time. The Public Theater’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream reaffirms that Black and Brown people are more than adequate storytellers. In terms of racial representation, The Public Theatre continues to show us what theatre can and should be. Inclusive not divisive or dismissive; or as Oskar Eustis says in the pre-show announcements theatre is “where art and culture meet.”
Under the direction of Lear deBessonet, current resident director and founder of Public Works, A Midsummer seduces you like a determined lover hellbent on winning your heart. You’ll hear planes flying low overhead and the frequent cop car or ambulance wailing outside the park but you’ll be as spellbound as Lysander and Demetrius were with Helena. Phylicia Rashad saunters onto the stage through light smog after ascending a short flight of stairs in a glittering silver gown to address her fairy companions. Marcelle Davies-Lashley croons “Wake me up when summers here,” and you’re hooked.
You’ll forget you’re listening to a play in verse, thanks to a company of actors with impeccable comedic timing. As the Bard’s work did in his day, A Midsummer reflects modern love even in iambic pentameter. In one scene, Hermia has had enough of a pestering Demetrius and regales him with a lofty Shakespearean “leave me alone” but when he persists she lets out a “Boy if you don’t…” and storms off stage to roaring laughter. Here, as evidenced throughout the entire show, the folly of romance is timeless.
“The course of true love never did run smooth” Lysander tells Hermia, but it doesn’t have to when everyone’s falling head over heels in lust on a beautiful stage in lavish costumes under a clear night sky. So, like all summer romances that have to end, A Midsummer Night’s Dream will only be in the park for two weeks, opening Monday July 31 and running through August 13, 2017. Don’t miss your chance to see Phylicia Rashad and experience this enthralling production!
For more information on how to get your free tickets visit ThePublicTheater.org
Location: The Delacorte Theatre in Central Park
Creative: Direction by the Public’s Resident Director and Founder of the Public Works program, Lear deBessonet with choreography by Chase Brock.
Cast: Featuring Phylicia Rashad (Titania), De’Adre Aziza (Hippolyta), Patrena Murray (Snout), Shalita Grant (Hermia) and Kyle Beltran (Lysander); as well as Annaleigh Ashford (Helena); Vinie Burrows (First Fairy, Peaseblossom); Danny Burstein (Nick Bottom); Justin Cunningham (Philostrate); Marcelle Davies-Lashley (Fairy Singer); Austin Durant (Snug); Keith Hart (Third Fairy); Alex Hernandez (Demetrius); Jeff Hiller (Francis Flute); Robert Joy (Peter Quince); Patricia Lewis (Fourth Fairy); David Manis (Egeus, Cobweb); Pamela McPherson-Cornelius (Second Fairy); Kristine Nielsen (Puck); Bhavesh Patel (Theseus); Richard Poe (Oberon); Joe Tapper (Robin Starveling); Judith Wagner (Mote); Warren Wyss (Mustardseed); Benjamin Ye (Changeling Boy).
Running Time: 2 and a half hours, including a 20 minute intermission
Through August 13, 2017
We Were There: The Three Musketeers
At the Richard Rodgers Amphitheater in Marcus Garvey Park, tucked between a baseball diamond and a playground, the Classical Theatre of Harlem’s fast-paced swashbuckling retelling of The Three Musketeer’s, brings a little Paris to Harlem, but not without taking a little Harlem to Paris.
As the sun sets in the trees somewhere behind the stage, you’ll take in a dabbing Porthos (Reynaldo Piniella), an ensemble of dancers from the Elisa Monte company, and Shayshahn “PhearNone” MacPherson on the Aurora violin, leaving one to wonder “Are we in Harlem or in France?”
In Catherine Bush’s adaptation of the Alexandre Dumas classic under Jenny Bennett’s direction, a female D’Artagnan (Miriam Hyman; The Piano Lesson ) moves from the country in hopes of joining the King’s musketeers. Before doing so of course, she must first sword-fight with almost everyone, fall in love with her landlord’s daughter (Ava McCoy), and figure out what it means to be “all for one and one for all.” It’s a tale about the three musketeers that’s less about the classic trio, and more about D’Artagnan the musketeer wannabe who can’t seem to catch a break.
Amidst a simple yet impressive set, Hyman shows us a D’Artagnan as we’ve never seen her before, simply because we haven’t seen her before. As Bennett imagined it, D’Artagnan doesn’t need to man up to be a musketeer but woman up, and woman up Hyman does. With her dred-loc bob and braid clips Hyman bounds around the stage with her sword at the ready as if she were already in the King’s service. “If I wanted to kill you,” she nonchalantly tells an injured Athos (Emmanuel Brown; Spider-man: Turn Off the Dark) “I’d use my sword.” Hyman’s understated confidence and surety ensure that you haven’t any doubt somebody’s dying at her hand before the 90 minutes is up.
The 90 minutes goes by very fast. So fast that if you paused to swat at the many flies that were also trying to enjoy the show, you might miss a connection between a flashback scene happening on the balcony stage left or when they cut to the present to reenact a story-within-a-story center stage. Even so, in a scene cut too short- literally stopped by a 5 second blackout- the three musketeers get into a bar brawl with flying mugs and chairs… in slow motion! Arguably the most visually arresting (albeit random) scene in the whole show.
Concerning design, when the sun finally disappeared and the front lighting hit the stage just right, the park faded into nonexistence and you could fully bask in CTH’s colorful production. Costume designer Rachel Dozier-Ezell’s mix of bold and bright patterns added a layer of captivation to the dancers dresses, the Queen of France’s (Afia Abusham) ball gown, and of course the musketeers. Consider this, could Athos, Porthos and Aramis (Brandon Carter) have made better entrances without velvet capes and striped pantalons paired with floral chemisiers, paisley vests and cheetah print boots? I think not!
If Paris, France represents a little respite amidst the chaos of a troubled world, with sword fights and cautionary tales of love gone wrong, then yes, CTH’s The Three Musketeers definitely brought a little France to Harlem.
Location: Richard Rodgers Amphitheater, Marcus Garvey Park. Free and open to the public.
Creative: By Catherine Bush, adapted from the novel by Alexandre Dumas. Directed by Jenny Bennett. Choreography by Tiffany Rea-Fisher. Fight Choreography by Emmanuel Brown.
Cast: Starring Miriam Hyman, Emmanuel Brown, Brandon Carter, Reynaldo Piniella, Michael Early, R.J. Foster, Anthony Merchant and Piera Van de Weil. Featuring Afia Abusham, Jeffrey Alkins, Jamar Brathwaite, Avon Haughton, Ava McCoy, Nedra Snipes, Jorge Sanchez, Jak Watson and The Elisa Monte Dance Company.
Running Time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Through July 30
We Were There: Kill Move Paradise Rattles With Power, Pain And Joy
Earlier this week, Jeronimo Yanez joined the list of police officers who have been acquitted of charges linked to the shooting deaths of Black men. Yanez is now a free man, while Philando Castile is and the pursuit for justice is dead. In a country more interested in short-sighted ignorance over comprehensive explanation and dialogue, we fight for our humanity against the demonization of our brothers, sisters, sons and daughters. All losing their life for simply being Black in America. Consequently, we pick up the shattered pieces of our human emotion and reassemble the portraits of the lives taken from us.
Philando Castile’s last words were: “I wasn’t reaching for it.” Mike Brown’s: “I don’t have a gun. Stop shooting.” Oscar Grant’s: “You shot me. You shot me!” Trayvon Martin’s: “What are you following me for?”
James Ijames’ daring Kill Move Paradise is now on stage at the National Black Theatre. Through an expressionistic interpretation on the value of life, Ijames demands reform in the way we remember those who have been slain at the hands of state sanctioned violence.
Power, poison, pain, and joy boomerang across the fun house mirrors of Maruti Evans’ set. The audience, although left off the program, is a characterization of America. We look each other eye to eye in a space which eerily calls to memory a one-way mirror interrogation room. However, it is not dark enough. There is no masking their pain, or our pain. There is both freedom and hopelessness as we contort with conviction under strobe lights, checked privilege, and emotional discomfort. So we look on, so we lean in, as 4 men, 4 Black men, query in heartbreaking harmony: where are we and how did we get here?
Isa (Ryan Swain), Grif (Donnell E. Smith), Daz (Clinton Lowe) and Tiny (Sidiki Fofana), give equally dynamic and affecting performances as part of the list, a “cohort,” which includes Mike Brown, Eric Garner, and Trayvon Martin. This list mirrors the circumstance of present day as it grows in length by the moment. As time passes and reality becomes more clear, we squirm as we sit with new questions rooted in the protocol for the perished: What is the rhythm of the first breath on the other side? What is the cadence of these first steps and who is there to hold our hand as we stumble on the terrain of the unknown?
Saheem Ali directs with sharp shears, perfectly inserting humanity into this cavity between heaven and hell. 4 men. 4 beautiful Black men become Heroes. Swain is eloquence. He is grace and the fluidity of our movement. Smith is the sunshine in the eye of a man that carries a dream and is equipped with the tools to carry it out. Lowe is equal parts heart and soul, a fierce protector, a friend. Fofana is the harrowing sound a needle makes when it hits the center of the vinyl, the record is Innocence and there’s no side B. Together, these men represent the hopes, dreams, and aspirations of those snatched from this earth before their time.
Time has a cruel way of repeating itself here. Kill Move Paradise is uncomfortable but it has to be. We sit and watch death repeat itself to the point of satire. In these moments, how can we not be provoked and challenged to rise out of own complacency? The beautiful thing about art is we have the power to use it to metabolize our fear, anger, and sorrow. Let this work be the reminder that we’re here to reclaim our stories. This is the Battlecry which sings we are our brother’s keeper. This is the ignition in the revolution of radical empathy.
Kill Move Paradise is the most urgent play you can see this season. Don’t miss your opportunity! Performances are Mondays, Thursdays, and Fridays at 7:30; Saturdays at 2 and 7:30; and Sundays at 4, thru June 25th.
The production team includes Maruti Evans (Set), Alan C. Edwards (Lighting), Ntokozo Fuzunina Kunene (Costumes), Palmer Hefferan (Sound), Darrell Moultrie (Movement), Darius Smith (Musical Director), and Christina Franklin (Production Stage Manager).
For more information and to purchase tickets visit nationalblacktheatre.org.
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]