As a teacher, at what can be considered an amazing charter school, I am a bit ignorant to the woes of my fellow public district schools. I get angry when a kid talks back, but for some teachers, administrators and students their problems are much bigger. Problems such as what happens when your inner-city schools get told its doors are closing at the end of the year? Ike Holter’s Exit Strategy is an uproarious, passionate play that deals with the issues of our current U.S education system, and how one Chicago public school deals with the tragic loss of something so dear to them.
The title Exit Strategy makes sense early on in the show and is the essential running theme through the entire night. Each character has been forced to design an “exit strategy” in the event that their beloved school actual does close its doors. The “exit strategies” range from the complete drastic to extremely content, and all of them bound to take the audience on a wild ride.
In the opening scene, we are met with characters I know all too well, the young administrator Rick (Ryan Sphan) and the veteran teacher Pam (Deirdre Madigan), that is equally loved and hated by staff and students alike. This moment essentially sets the tone of the show, and through Holter’s sharp, hilarious dialogue we can guess where he stands on the issue of the U.S government failing our inner-city public schools.
The rest of the play is told in the teachers lounge where we meet a handful of other teachers that range in age, gender and race, which was something that really excited me– to see all the diversity on the stage. The teachers are meeting over the summer to decide how they break the news to students that the school is closing after their current school year, in a speech lead by a cynical senior teacher named Arnold (Michael Cullen). After they’ve settled that order of business Sadie (Aimé Donna Kelly), introduces her “exit strategy”, a plan to foster community support to keep the school open, starting with a public march. The other teachers, with the exception of Luce (Rey Lucas), shut her down almost immediately not wanting to give the false hope that their school will actually stay open past the year. Arnold and Jania (the hilarious Christina Nieves) both tell Sadie they have tried before — and failed.
Giving up on that dream, the teachers seem resigned to the fact they will have to start looking for jobs for the next year, until we meet the senior that plans to change everything, Donnie (the brilliant Brandon Pierce). Having hacked the school’s website (he turned it into a Kickstarter page to raise funds to keep the school open), he is now up for a possible expulsion. It is during this moment where one of the most powerful scenes is on display, Pierce delivers a passionate, angry monologue about his journey through the public schools system that includes one that was so poorly financed that the students had to go to his teachers for toilet paper. Ricky is so impressed he doesn’t suspend or expel him, instead, he names Donnie his “creative associate” in charge of social media for a newly formed group called Team Winning, which will gain public support for the school. With this new group, the hope is to cause enough of a stir in the media to keep their school up and running. Everyone–teachers, administrates and students are hopeful, joyous even. Even if only for a moment.
It’s one of those shows that isn’t nicely wrapped up with a bow at the end. The ending actually challenges you to push your thinking about this issue further, what do we do next? What can we do next, to prevent awful things like this from happening? Perhaps that was Holter’s intention because I left the performance with more fire in my belly. In part because of the strong, believable performances of the cast and the intelligent writing of Holter’s script, but especially because this piece was so close to the work I do, and I couldn’t imagine what I would do if my school just — wasn’t my school anymore.
Well, I have an idea of what I’d do, and it’s a line that really stuck with me from the show as I traveled back to Brooklyn that night. The young Donnie is crying out as he watches his school get destroyed in front of his very eyes, a place that was his home, Christina Nieves’ character says, “You fight, and you fight, but you don’t beg.
Exit Strategy a limited engagement only running until May 6, 2016, at Cherry Lane Theatre (38 Commerce Street New York, NY). The performance schedule is as follows; Tue-Fri 8, Sat 2&8, Sun 3, and added 2pm matinee Wednesday, May 4 and there are no performances available: April 12, 13, 20. The official run time is 95 minutes with no intermission. Tickets can be purchased here.
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.