It’s ambitious. It’s daring. It’s fun. It’s a history lesson. It’s full of Jazz. It’s Tap-TASTIC. It’s Shuffle Along, Or the Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed.
Theatrical prodcutions adapt books, films, comics (I’m sleep on that one!) to Broadway, but if you ever wondered what a documentary would look like on stage, look no further than Shuffle Along.The most ambitious, the most daring show finally opened on Broadway last night and what an opening it was. The highly anticipated, star-studded Shuffle Along is now open for business, and to win all of the awards of course.
Carefully crafted by the genius that is George C. Wolfe, Shuffle Along includes all the makings for a great musical. The show, which I’d argue has the most talented cast of the Broadway way season (yes, I said it!), has syncopated rythms, catchy tunes, rapid tap-dancing and star power- you really can’t go wrong, even if the show is close to 3 hours long. WHO CARES! Watching Shuffle Along is like being on the tea cups at Disney World, everyone wants go on the ride, you get dizzy but you had the time of your life and you want to ride over and over again.
Out of all the things to highlight in Shuffle- the one thing that no other show can boast about- is the level of top-tier, syncopated, rhythmic, aggressive tap dancing. This is no surprise as Savion Glover is well known for his skills, grabbing the Tony back in 1996 for his work on Bring In Da Noise, Bring In Da Funk. There is a moment where all the amazing ensemble members come to gather to mimic the sound of a train, and my God if you closed your eyes you would have thought you were at a train station. Alas, you look out and instead, it’s the furious tap-dancing of some of the most talented dancers I’ve seen on Broadway ever.
In addition to the choreography the performances by lead and supporting alike, are the bright spots for this show. Six-time Tony Winner Audra McDonald proves once again why she is the real-life Superwoman, as it seems there is nothing she can’t do. She charms us as the diva-esq “Lottie Gee”, and it’s such a treat to watch Audra take on a character that actually gets to be happy, hilarious and sassy all at once. McDonald knocks it out of the park. When Lottie needs to be vulnerable, Audra plays her as such. When she needs to be over-the-top Audra does that, too. It’s a constant reminder that McDonald, truly is one of the greatest thespians of our time, or anytime really.
Brian Stokes Mitchell proves he’s still got it as “F.E Miller ” (No seriously, does he age?). He’s the perfect leading man material, his voice is rich, his character charms, and his powerful monologue in the second act will emotionally stun you.
Billy Porter tosses away his Kinky Boots and throws on his best suit as the often cynical, yet determined “Aubrey Lyles“. He completely stops the show with his 11 o’clock number “Low Down Blues” , taking me all the way to my COGIC roots.
Joshua Henry and Brandon Victor Dixon embody “Noble Sissle” and “Eubie Blake“. Looking at old pictures of the actual Sissle and Blake compared to Henry and Dixon, gives me goosebumps. The resemblance is uncanny. The two have great chemistry and just knowing their story (they both finally get to be onstage together instead of being each others replacements) makes this more of a treat. These two truly are worthy of the leading man status they are given in this musical.
Adrienne Warren completely captivates as both “Gertrude Sanders” and “Florence Mills” her ability to channel them is mind-blowing, especially knowing how her actual voice sounds, the attention to details she brings to both characters is sure to earn her attention for the Tony’s. Amber Iman is also a star in her own right. She’s funny, she taps and the girl can SANG. Not sing- but SANG.
With Shuffle, there is a lot going on. A lot that needs to be said and George C. Wolfe is determined to fit it all in. It’s easy to get lost in the plot because there is so much. The first act is a mere telling of how the show got there, mixed with actual scenes from the original Shuffle Along, the first act is hopeful, it’s truly sensational. It’s fun, it’s insipring, and it’s joyus. It’s that second act that hits you in the gut. It’s the second act that you fully understand the “all that follows” portion of the show.
The second act is a true history lesson, while the tapping and the acting are just as excellent, the story switches its narrative. The honeymoon phase of this show is now over and these doe eyed writers and musicians find that reality is hitting them hard. Noble, Sissle, Lyles, and Blake are no more, Shuffle Along is now gone, just a footnote in someones theatre history book. These names forgotten, the show non-existent, this point made clear by Brooks Ashmanskas character (he plays every white character in the show).
Forgotten until George C. Wolfe brilliantly brings it back to life, with a new energy. The original Shuffle Along opened in 1921 and was the hottest show on Broadway (well on 63rd) it was able to turn a two-way street into a one way, it integrated audiences for the first time, it had a Black love story on stage, and it was written, directed and featured music from black artists. It starred black actors who got their start because of this show. As Langston Hughes credits, Shuffle Along was the start of what we know as the Harlem Renaissance.
This show literally changed the landscape of theater. While the legends behind the show were almost forgotten, Wolfe and company bring them back to life with the legends of our present. It only makes sense that we have this particular starry cast, telling this particular story. For every African-American that has crossed or seen a Broadway stage, Shuffle Along is apart of that theater lineage, it’s a history that we have to acknowledge.
In 1921 Miller, Sissle, Lyles, and Blake took a chance, they risked it all. They literally carved out a way for themselves, that gratefully and luckily worked. It allowed black artists to be where they are today. Without Noble, Sissle, Lyles, Blake and everyone involved there would be no Broadway Black. We’d have nothing to report, nothing to hightlight.
For that alone this show will always have a special place in our hearts, and we hope a lot of other peoples hearts too. The timing couldn’t be more perfect, whether or not Wolfe could have predicated this -we don’t know. It’s no secret it’s Broadway’s most diverse season yet, but there is also the current state of America and its issues with equality, race and gender. This show has extra meaning for us.
It would be impossible to leave the theater without taking something away, Wolfe has given us more than we can chew, but you’re bound to swallow something. I know I left the theatre more intrigued about who these four men were and what they contributed to the theater. To know the struggles- the fight that Noble, Sissle, Blake and Lyles had to have to put this show up only makes me appreciate this production more. If they could be alive to see this production, I’m sure they’d give it their stamp of approval. They were more than overdue for a show that accurately embodies who they were and what they did. I couldn’t think of anything better than this production. George C. Wolfe and company dare to right the wrongs in history, and if I may be so blunt to say that with this production they most certainly have.
Be sure to get your tickets to this Broadway Black favorite here! But before you buy, check out these photos from the show!
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.