If you would have told me seven years ago there would be a show on Broadway that starred, was written and directed by all African American (and African-born) women I may have laughed at you. Simply because those stories don’t get told, that’s not what people come to Broadway for! For most, Broadway is a world of escapism, a perfect little utopia in which the biggest problem is getting the girl you love to love you back. Eclipsed is nothing of the sorts and that is a feat within itself.
Danai Gurira’s Eclipsed is bold, refreshing, riveting and all around breathtaking. It starts the moment you walk into the Golden Theatre to see the stage transformed into a compound in Libera during the Liberian Civil War in 2003.
The first character we meet on stage is “Wife No. 1” (played brilliantly by Saycon Sengbloh) whose role within the compound is clear, she’s the mother hen. We meet her as she’s cornrowing the hair of “Wife No. 3” (the hilarious and smart Pascale Armand) so that her wig can stay on better (Gurira subtley plays with the dynamics of good and bad hair here). It is then we meet the Girl, played with tenacious vulnerability and youthfulness by Academy Award winner Luptia Nyong’o. She stumbled upon the compound after fleeing her own village and has sought refuge with Wife No. 1 and No. 3, who fight to keep her hidden. Their reason? The term “wife” is only used to hide fact these women are essentially sex slaves, for the CO, the commandant, a rebel warlord in which they serve. The fact that these women are nameless, speaks volumes as to what times were like in Libera at the time. As much as they try to shelter the Girl, she is found and meets the same fate as them and is then labeled as Wife No. 4. It’s also worth the mention that Akosua Busia’s “Rita, is a breath of fresh air as a peace ambassador she’s able to get the girls to open up in ways they haven’t done before. A vision in white, she quickly becomes their light.
Perhaps the most riveting of the scenes is watching the women laugh and joke with each other, only to be interrupted when the CO is approaching and wants to have his way with one of them (usually Wife No.4). The way their demeanor shifts and the energy in the theatre is stale, we too are afraid of will happen next. Only to have the women return, wipe themselves down and go on about their day as if nothing happened. The story picks up momentum with the arrival of Wife No. 2 (Zainab Jah) who escaped a life of sexual servitude by joining the rebels in war. Her relationship with the other wives are strained, but she takes a liking to the Girl, one that has her coming around more often.
It is after speaking with Wife No. 2 in the forest gathering wood for the fire, that the Girl transforms in front of our very eyes, and Nyong’o plays both sides of her with ease. While the Girl still maintains her innocence, she has a newfound confidence and becomes much more audacious in her actions. She is eventually caught in the web of seduction and freedom offered to her by Wife No. 2 and thus begins her own self-journey. One that is punctuated in one of the hands-down best monologues heard on Broadway yet. This is the climax. This is the turning point, this is the moment that Nyong’o truly shines and proves she is a force to be reckoned with.
The gut-wrenching monologue delivered with bewilderment and confusion, and a little bit of hysteria by Ms. Nyong’o, had the entire theatre silent. The Girl is forced to remember all of the atrocities she participated in, and immediately the shame, disgust, and sadness is apparent. Not only was she a victim of this war, but she was also an active participant inflicting that same suffering she went though on to someone else. The ending leaves room for audiences to decide her fate and we feel the full weight of it, after all for the past two hours we went through the journey with her.
The Girls’ future may be uncertain – but as for the all of the amazing actresses in Eclipsed and it’s brilliant female playwright- their future for certain is bright and should come with a silver trophy named Tony.
Eclipsed is playing now through June 19th at the Golden Theatre. Tickets can be purchased here, by calling (212) 239-6200, or by purchasing at the box office.
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.
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