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We Were There: Between Riverside And Crazy

Broadway Black

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The weatherman said temperatures from this day forth would be 40 degrees or higher- so for this Houston native, the worst of winter had finally come to an end. The warmly welcomed one-layer-of-clothing days yielded no room for discretion when I received a 1:40 pm phone call to be dressed and present for a 3 pm matinee of Between Riverside and Crazy playing at Second Stage Theatre. Running from the 42nd street subway station, bobbing and weeving through all the tall sculptures of molasses we call tourists, I finally arrived at the theatre with not a second to spare. I found myself in an empty lobby where an overwhelmed house manager shuffled through endless envelopes containing “no shows” as she searched for last name Catchy- with a K. “Oh, sorry.” No success to be found there as the man of whom’s ticket I was to be claiming had actually just arrived. Shit. But wait, Is that Heather? From acting school? Oh, snap it is! “Hey girl hey! I was coming to see the show, but she can’t find my ticket.” “Oh, it’s so funny. You cannot miss it. Wait, didn’t the lady that just went in say she only needed one? Take her other ticket.” Ain’t gotta tell me twice.
I see why they tell you in acting school to never burn bridges with anyone. 
 
I show the dissatisfied usher my ticket who seemed to be running on auto pilot as he flashed his light over my phone to ensure I was turning it off. I did. I usually just put it on airplane mode, but he seemed to be very adamant about it being completely off, “it’s a small theatre”, he says. And now I’m in. I might have missed the first few minutes but not much. I immediately pick up whatever it is I might not have caught. Two men talking at a table. Right now, it’d be too much of a disturbance for the usher to show me to my actual seat, so he has me sit in the back, which is alright by me. I love being able to watch people watch theatre. It’s a completely different experience. Especially when you watch white people in the audience as black and brown bodies are onstage, in their natural habitat, expressing how they feel towards the former and why. There was a lot to observe because of this play. It’s like the whites want to laugh, but don’t know if they have permission. They always have permission to laugh at themselves. Someone send them the memo.
 
As perfectly timed, Pops, played by Stephen McKinley Henderson, delivered a line that erupted  a monstrous roar of laughter from the audience, allowing me hide in the commotion as I was finally able to  “Excuse me, sorry, thank you” my way 5 rows down and 4 chairs in. In my section, I was seated next to an older black man and a younger black man, surrounded by other black men and women with a sprinkle of white every few chairs. For me, this is always a big deal when going to the theatre, because this plays a huge part in my theatrical experience for the evening. You can turn to the black stranger that looks like you, that relates to you on a certain level and laugh about something you’d both experienced at some point in your life. Theatre for me becomes more familiar and comfortable when the woman 2 rows over is talking to the men on stage like she’s rewriting the play as it goes on. When I can laugh with my seatmates at the conversation between best friends Junior and Oswaldo, played by Ron Cephus Jones and Victor Almanzar. It’s fun. It’s family. And that’s what I enjoyed about this performance. The black and brown bodies related to the other black and brown strangers sitting next to them.
 
Then intermission.
 
I sprung out of my seat to find my friend who’d called me about the tickets. Bottom of the staircase, just as fabulous as could be, we waved and gave love.
I’m so sorry. My friend actually showed up and claimed his ticket.” “It’s fine. They gave me someone’s extra ticket. I’m so glad I could make it- These actors are taking me to a world I don’t think I’ve ever been invited to. I have no idea what Act 2 is going to bring. Fucking Stephen Adly, man- Brilliant writer.” “Yeah, he is. I wanna do this play. Do you think someone will let me play Pops? Maybe if I was little bit older. I’m gonna call up Stephen and tell him to write a Junior Edition. This play is so good.”
 
Act Two.
 
Back in my seat, trying not to make too much noise with the wrapper of this overpriced cookie I bought from concessions- cause there ain’t nothing like being able to munch on something while watching some good theatre- so I wait for another monstrous roar of laughter to snatch it out; which was sure to happen soon, with this hilarious play. I wait. Talk- talk- funny line (but not funny enough) serious moment- funny line and OKAY (big laugh). Then the church going lady starts riding Pops, Oh, snap! and I’m just like OOOOH wowWhoa- I wasn’t expecting that. Way to go Stephen. 
 
Then the play ended and the large electronic blanket hiding the beautiful sun opens and I turn to my neighbor and say, “That was a good play. I really enjoyed it.” And he says, “you know what, me too. One to write home about.” And we walk out of the theatre, practically arm and arm sharing what we enjoyed the most; some good theatre.

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Reviews

Fabulation or, The Re-Education of Undine by Lynn Nottage — Review

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Afro-American narratives are experiencing a meteoric surge in the proliferation of the modern mainstream liberal white consciousness in the nation, critics will say, and they aren’t wrong. When All Arts circulated playwright Donja R. Love’s “List of Black Theater in New York City,” an alphabetized inventory of some of the most anticipated or under-the-radar stage shows by black storytellers and griots initially published on his Facebook page, the effect was cataclysmic, inspiring similar lists by other underserved and undervalued communities alike. But most exhilarating was the writer’s additional note that 31 of the 55 new works of the 2018-2019 theatre season are by black women and black femmes, which is unprecedented, considering especially how white, homogenized and segregated contemporary theatre is in The Capital of the World.

Enter Lynn Nottage’s 2004 satirical riches-to-rags comedy “Fabulation or, The Re-Education of Undine,” directed by Lileana Blain-Cruz, which receives a long overdue remounting within the Romulus Linney Courtyard Theatre at the Pershing Square Signature Center, kicking off a three-play residency for the storyteller at the acclaimed off-Broadway theater. Nottage, the first and only woman to take home the Pulitzer Prize for Drama twice—the first in 2009 for “Ruined,” and the second in 2017 for “Sweat,” both naturalistic tragedies—delivers a, dare I say, family-friendly romp filled to the brim with subtle updated observations on upward mobility and respectability politics that should come with more fanfare than it is unlikely to obtain from theatergoers or middle-of-the-road critics. That’s because often, many of the shows produced for commercial run seem tailored to the white gaze, with a particular caliber of plays being penned with the predilection for black suffering. However, “Fabulation,” a love-note to Nottage’s grandmother and whose target audience is Black women, in particular, creates a joyous farce that mocks both the upper elite and poverty porn with bombast.

The show depicts 37-year-old Undine Barnes Call-es (Cherise Boothe), a high octane black female business executive and head of her own Manhattan boutique publishing firm who seems to be in control, making moves from her high-rise office. Until she discovers, while trying to book a celebrity for the Fallopian Blockage ball, that Hervé, her Argentine husband has embezzled all of her savings and absconded. Body-slammed by a blitz of bad luck, a visit by an FBI agent signals that she’s also being investigated for identity fraud, stating she seems “to have materialized from the ether.” Which, as we find out, is correct: Undine’s real identity is Sharona Watkins, who grew up a Brooklyn public housing project, the product of working-class security guards. Yikes!



Her fall from grace and the public eye are similar to the Book of Job: While Undine is far from a good person (she carelessly expunged her family in a magazine profile, falsely claiming they perished in a fire), her financial ruin causes public shame, forcing her to file for bankruptcy and to return to her parents in Fort Greene. In addition, her security guard brother Flow, a cypher-spitting Iraq war veteran, mocks her when he’s not rhyming about Br’er Rabbit and Uncle Remus; long-lost friends from childhood know nothing of her Dartmouth education or achievements; and she’s sharing sleep quarters with her heroin-addicted grandmother. To make matters worse, during a routine check-up after suffering a severe anxiety attack, Undine’s discovers she’s pregnant and left to wait in the purgatory of a Social Services office with a self-righteous over-the-counter clerk to get welfare. But the cherry on top? After reluctantly agreeing to buy drugs for Grandma, Undine gets arrested and is ordered to join a drug counseling group. A bit of a ham, Undine engineers a tale of deception, fabricating a life of addiction that began with Percocet. There, she meets an optimistic ex-con and recovering addict who admits that just three years prior he was “that brother you cross the street to avoid,” nevertheless his sincerity and genuine empathy are welcomed and even refreshing considering the circumstances. Still, there are reminders of her posh past life: Her self-made gal pal Alison, who reminds her that, “There is nothing less forgiving than Bourgie Negroes,” just before marooning Undine outright; her fashion-forward former assistant is employee of the month at a Duane Reade drugstore and is just as hypercritical as her; and a childhood friend mixes and mingles with the black NYC in-crowd.

.Montana Levi Blanco’s amusing costume designs, which ranged with haute couture designer styles and future Harajuku-esque street fashion to rinky-dink Salvation Army threads, all felt period and sympathetic to the material, and were complimented effortlessly by Cookie Jordan’s fantastic wigs. Director Lileana Blain-Cruz’s dexterous presentation never permits the pacing to halt or slow, aptly interchanging the comedy and the drama with aplomb, which matched perfectly with Adam Rigg’s versatile, quick-change sets. The ensemble was astral-bodied and glittering; with Nikiya Mathis, Mayaa Boateng, J. Bernard Calloway, and Ian Lassiter as the standout. Marcus Callender, Dashiell Eaves, Heather Alicia Simms also star.

At first, many may market Nottage’s play as a sister to most of Tyler Perry’s C.O.G.-flavored entertainment. But tonally, “Fabulation” has more in common with the Wayans brothers’ “Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinking Your Juice in the Hood”; a parody of the legal system and of the genre that exploits oppressed black people, the same people Undine meets in her downfall. But this play is a lot of political than it lets on, undercutting the themes with wit and belly-laugh-inducing humor.




The trick of Nottage’s play is in its title, which may not bode well for the traditional theatre critic; the story may play to some as a beloved, long-lost TV sitcom in the 1990s, like, say, “Roc” or “Living Single,” but the plot device and the protagonist’s journey have more in common with African folktale or magical realism. To earn such a title for a play of this caliber, Nottage would, in turn, have to ‘fabulate,’ or divulge invented fantasy-filled fables, and thus appraise subject matter, style, chronological structure, and the syntheses of both daily life and the fantastical into snapshots that distort conventional peculiarities between highbrow and lowbrow. The award-winning writer does this in copious amounts, achieving her intended goal. Similar to her PR maven protagonist, Nottage’s tries in vain to subvert the fundamental optics of race and womanhood in the modern U.S.A. with a blithely rib-tickling lampoon centralized on black women wrestling with identity in a culture that refuses to receive them on their terms. Undine’s voyage to spiritual rebirth after having to make back-to-back compromised and hazardous alternatives to her situation in order to survive is earned, particularly when she allows herself to be genuinely vulnerable. As the CEO of her own Manhattan boutique PR firm catering to “the vanity and confusion of the African-American nouveau riche,” Undine fashioned herself into the spin-doctor of her wildest dreams, making it her mission to shapeshift the narrative about her and people who look like her. But was her hope to change the narrative for the better or to appease her clientele, and even the white gaze?

“Fabulation or, The Re-Education of Undine” runs through January 13, 2019, at Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 W 42nd St. in New York. For tickets or information, call 212-244-7529 or visit www.signaturetheatre.org

Fabulation or, The Re-Education of Undine by Lynn Nottage
8.6 Reviewer
Summary
Full of laughter, this is a show meant for a light evening. Go, especially if you think Nottage can only make you cry. Cherise Boothe is captivating, and this ensemble cast will probably be the most enjoyable you’ll see this winter.
Actor Craftsmanship10
Direction9
Book8
Costume Design8
Sound Design7.5
Audience Enjoyment9

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Reviews

Ngozi Anyanwu’s Good Grief — Review

Jazmine Harper-Davis

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Ngozi Anyanwu & Nnamdi Asomugha photo by CarolRosegg

How does one deal with grief? When do we stop grieving?Writer/Actress Ngozi Anyanwu poetically attempts to address the age-old question with her play, Good Grief, in its New York premiere at the Vineyard Theatre. We meet Nkechi, or Nfor those who cannot pronounce her name, a med school dropout who has returned to her childhood suburban home in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. The accidental death of her close friend, MJ, launches Nkechi into a deep state of grief that is sometimes misunderstood by those around her. This death causes her to re-examine her relationships with the important people in her life. This re-examination is portrayed through short, non-chronological vignettes revealing truths, half-truths, and all-out fallacies.

The core of the play centers around her complicated relationship with her neighbor/childhood friend/sometimes romantic interest MJ (Ian Quinlan). Hes a dreamer and we meet him doing such – If I could be anything I would be a king! They live forever.Shes more practical, at least that the facade she has to put on for her parents who expect her to be the good Nigerian girl, a title she never asked for. We meet her in the middle of a distressing moment in her life, she’s dropped out of med school and questions her lifes purpose – only to be hit with the news of MJs untimely death.

The rest of the play navigates Nkechis various stages of womanhood and grief in no chronological order. The plot is the play’s strongest asset. Our lead tells the audience a story and desperately tries to get it right. Some moments Nkechi chooses to remember, she tells the truth, others, she lets us know shes revising for the better. True to life, when experiencing grief, we look back on the moments we had with those we mourn and mix them with memories we wish we’d had with them. Its human for time and experience to change the way we remember events in our past, we feel regret and wish we could have a do-over.  Anyanwus portrayal of Nkechi is nothing short of poetic. Nkechi speaks in beautiful, prose-like speech whether she is addressing a character on stage or speaking to the audience, you listen.

While Nkechi is the focus of the play, the supporting cast does an amazing job of pushing the story forward and helping us relate to our lead a bit more. Her mother, NeNe (Patrice Johnson Chevannes), a psychiatric nurse who mixes both African proverbs and psychiatric practice to help her daughter with grief; her traditional Nigerian father, Papa (Oberon K.A. Adjepong), who loves her despite not understanding the depth of her pain; and there is comic relief in the form of her brother, Bro (Nnamdi Asomugha), a wannabe ghetto philosopherwith a kind heart. These characters allow the audience to observe the many layers of Nkechis psyche, drawing out her vulnerability, insecurities, and sense of humor.

The show primarily takes place during nighttime, so the set and lights are minimal but impactful. The use of light is as dynamic as our lead characters’ thoughts and emotions. The lights often evoke a visual representation of Eureka!”  The outline of the set is the shape of a home that shifts as the play changes locations. The nighttime setting adds an air of mystery, and who doesnt enjoy a good mystery? Not sure if that was a conscious decision by the playwright or director, but it works.

Directed by Awoye Timpo, the play is easy to follow despite the non-chronological order (the play takes place between 1992 and 2005, also the beginning of time and the futurethe script reads) it helps that both Anyanwu and Quinlan are excellent at embodying the mannerisms and characteristics of their childlike selves. While it is a tragic incident that starts our story, its much more than that. Good Grief is a universal story of love and loss that keeps audiences laughing and crying, a brilliant piece of writing that should have theater producers pounding at Anyanwus door if they know whats good for them.

Good Grief
8.8 Reviewer
Summary
- Maybe it’s because it felt so familiar and reminded me of my relationships or the fact that “Crossroads” by Bone Thugs & Harmony made an appearance but this felt like I was living the journey. -The writing is superb, in fact, brilliant. The only thing I wish - Why isn’t this show a MUSICAL? It has the formula. -If you want to hear all the 90’s hits, you’ll love it. -If you’re looking for something to make you laugh and cry in 90 minutes, this is the show for you.
Actor Craftsmanship9
Direction9
Book10
Costume Design7.5
Sound Design8
Audience Enjoyment9

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