When was the last time you heard an overture? With most contemporary musical theater, the condensed 3-minute orchestration of a musical act in its entirety is a thing of the past. But at City Center Encores! Series’ Cabin in the Sky, audiences got to experience what musical theater felt like when it was born.
Let’s start with the cast. I mean, before the show even started, I was salivating. LaChanze, Norm Lewis, Marva Hicks, Chuck Cooper…need I say more? In common Encores! fashion, the orchestra was set on the back of the stage, which can be a bit distracting for some, but I personally love getting to see the musicians go to TOWN on a strong piece of music (and this conductor was an especially grooving kind).
Michael Potts did a wonderful job as “Lil Joe,” the reckless gambler conflicted with his internal struggle between right and wrong. His charm and humor made you feel sympathy for his “can’t get right” behavior. Playing his pious, loyal wife was the stunningly talented LaChanze, and trust, she did not disappoint. With endearing numbers like “Taking a Chance on Love” and her fun, Caribbean, Once on this Island-esque breakout number “Savannah,” she showed us that she’s still got her Tony Award-winning chops. Of course, Lewis played an angel. With that velvety voice, his performance was definitely heavenly. And Chuck Cooper was brilliantly hilarious bringing his deep devilish laugh to the role of “Satan Jr,” alongside his rag-tag trio henchmen which included the equally comical Tiffany Mann, Andre Farner and Dennis Stowe.
Now, let’s talk standouts. I need to start by acknowledging the beautiful choreography by Camille A. Brown. Her Katherine Dunham roots shone throughout every routine, especially pieces like “Vision Ballet” and “Savannah.” Every dance was elegant, ethnic and beautifully executed with the assistance of standout performers like Bahiyah Hibah whose movements were so fluid I willingly lost time just watching her. Other featured ensemble were Jared Joseph and Carmen Ruby Floyd who had stand out performances in the audience favorite “Dry Bones.” Took ERRYBODY to church! And last, but definitely not least, the inimitable Carly Hughes. Though she’s mostly only in the second act, she’s a scene stealer ever time. Sexy, sassy and so poised. Her flawless voice and walk like wine stop the show whenever she’s on stage.
I’ll be honest, the dated scored and simple book left a bit to be desired, but the performances made up for it tenfold. I hate that it was only up for a weekend, but luckily Shuffle Along is on the the way to cure my throwback theater blues.
The principal cast of Cabin in the Sky included Norm Lewis, LaChanze, Chuck Cooper, J. Bernard Calloway, Marva Hicks, Carly Hughes, Forrest McClendon and J.D. Webster.
The ensemble will feature Denisha Ballew, Darius Barnes, Chloe Davis, Timothy L. Edwards, Doug Eskew, Carmen Ruby Floyd, André Garner, Nkrumah Gatling, Rebecca L. Hargrove, Bahiyah Hibah, Andrea Jones-Sojola, Jared Joseph, Kristolyn Lloyd, Tiffany Mann, Sydney Morton, Mayte Natalio, Wayne Pretlow, Malaiyka Reid, Devin L. Roberts, Willie Smith III, Jay Staten, Dennis Stowe, Nicholas Ward, and Hollie E. Wright.
Photos by Joan Marcus
Fabulation or, The Re-Education of Undine by Lynn Nottage — Review
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
Ngozi Anyanwu’s Good Grief — Review
“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 “N” for 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). He’s a dreamer and we meet him doing such – “If I could be anything I would be a king! They live forever.” She’s 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 life’s purpose – only to be hit with the news of MJ’s untimely death.
The rest of the play navigates Nkechi’s 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 she’s 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. It’s 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. Anyanwu’s 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 philosopher” with a kind heart. These characters allow the audience to observe the many layers of Nkechi’s 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 doesn’t 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 future” the 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, it’s 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 Anyanwu’s door if they know what’s good for them.