I’m going to be completely honest. I didn’t start going to Broadway shows and plays until very recently. I have watched a few via VHS or DVD but to actually sit in a theatre and watch live acting? That’s never been a part of my ministry. I do however know that for the longest stage plays have been used to depict a way of life, a series of events, or taboo topics generally unseen or rarely (if at all) talked about. Digging deeper, I’ll even stand on the notion that in many ways they’ve been a voice to and for the voiceless. From fear to sadness to happiness and all in between, art on the stage has been able to turn words into moving objects and tell stories we can all relate to, both directly or indirectly, depending on how we watch.
We got a chance to check out “Look Upon our Lowliness” for its opening night at the Harlem School of the Arts Theatre, and writer Harrison David Rivers and Director David Mendizabal effortlessly captured the essence of all those things and more.
Surrounding the untimely death of close friend “Tyler,” (Jared) “Look Upon our Lowliness” hit us with a roller coaster ride of mixed emotions from the very beginning. Set in New York’s neighborhood of Harlem we are quickly whisked away into the world of a group of young gay men of color who on the surface appear to be if nothing else, attempting to cope with the weight of what has happened.
The flow of this piece is worth noting and we get a feel for whom the cast is and what the hell is going on in moments. Almost immediately we are introduced to Kendall (Tommy Coleman) the boyfriend of Martin (Lelund Durond) who both obviously have some miscommunication issues going on. From there we meet Darious (Brandon Gill) a dancer and the assumed narrator of the bunch who manages to pull us in and still leave us in the dark as he recounts his experience of what has transpired.
Next we meet Aubry (Brandon Kyle Goodman) a light hearted, witty, funny, mother figure of the group (who I actually relate to all too well). With Aubry comes his boyfriend, Ozrael or “Oz,” (Michael Satow) a cute painter with a little more than a bucket of paint to hold onto. Oh, and did I mention “Oz” is a white guy? No? Well he is and I for one am glad that a story of colored boys includes the reality of interracial dating. Somewhere along the lines we meet Wyndam (W. Tre Davis), the awkward, off-beat, and spacy friend that everyone loves because he’s just that, lovable. Oh and how could I forget? What would a story about a group of gay friends be without a Dominican cutie with a thing for, what can I say? “Things”. “Julio” (Keith Antone) comes into play as the full on sexually free friend who has no problem sliding into anything. He then introduces “Shy” (Paul Pontrelli) who isn’t a part of the main group of friends but still has a defining role in the unveiling of a few secrets.
The cast came into focus so fast that I couldn’t help but notice that I was not only meeting them but learning that the coping they were doing was really nothing more than a catalyst of revelation to what the friendships of these men have been formed upon. From video blogs to brief nudity and sex to talks of hate crimes and the suspicion over what really happened to Tyler, so much is uncovered and packaged into 90 minutes. I laughed, I teared up a little, and I even became a little upset as I found myself in the shoes of many of these characters. I can’t tell you how pleased I was to see an accurate depiction of how the closeness of friendships can make or break entire situations depending on what knowledge is known or unknown; How a web of lies can tear a group apart OR on the contrary, bring an entire group together. It didn’t hurt that the scenic designer (Paul Tate Depoo III) set the stage up in a manner in which I felt like I was on the stage or in the conversations as well so I felt every emotion, both good and bad.
The performances were heart felt and gave more than enough to create a world that we didn’t want to leave, only left wanting to know more. What happened next? We have to go and see it again just to put together the pieces of our mind that are left hanging on to the hour and a half that had us floating, much like the group of friends fighting for that last moment with their friend Tyler. To the cast and crew of “Look Upon Our Lowliness”, very well done. We look forward to more from The Movement Theatre Company if this is the type of work that they put forth.
The show runs Thursday, Friday, Saturday through April 20th
Get Your Tickets NOW! —–> CLICK 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.