Broadway Black was in attendance Thursday night for the opening of Dominique Morisseau‘s Skeleton Crew. Following a sold out run at Atlantic Stage 2, the show with its original cast returns to Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater. The show, which is Morisseau’s third play in her Detroit trilogy, follows a family of auto plant workers who deal with the possibility of their plant closing its doors for good. Power dynamics come into play, loyalties are tested and some will do whatever it takes to survive. This past week we celebrated the birthday of some of the greatest black playwrights Lorraine Hansberry and last month August Wilson, I’d say with works like Skeleton Crew, Domonique Morisseau is a love child of the two and is setting up a legacy of her own. Her writing is sharp, filled with rich dialogue, as the characters literally come to life in front of you. As I watched, I felt that I was transported to Detroit in 2008, due to the strong writing of her work and the excellent performances by the amazing cast of four.
The show opens with a dancer (Adesola Osakalumi), billed in the playbill as Performer, who makes appearances throughout the show and his movements are mechanical to go along with the sound and projection visuals, it only adds to the whole experience, as all of our senses are filled up within the first 5 minutes of the show. Under the direction of the brilliant Ruben Santiago-Hudson, we are in for a night of amazing theatre.
As we are introduced to the characters one by one, it’s clear that Faye is the heart and soul of the auto plant. Faye (the impeccable Lynda Gravatt), is the “do what she wants” matriarch, and she pretty much can because she’s been working at the factory longer the most of them have been alive. From her bedazzled Obama sweatshirt that I think every black mother and grandmother snagged in 2008, (costume designer Paul Tazewell did such an amazing job, here) she was the engine that kept the whole train going. I’m almost positive everyone knows a Faye, and even at my age I found myself relating to her the most. A hardworking woman that just wanted the best for the people she worked with, the people she loves but rarely asked for help. Owning the title of superwoman, when in reality sometimes you have to understand can’t do everything on your own. She holds secrets, tells you what you don’t want to hear but need to, and her impact on her co-workers and boss is felt throughout the entire show.
Characters like Dez (Jason Dirden), the ambitious bad boy with a heart of gold. Great intentions, but not always the best methods for carrying those out. Shanita (Nikiya Mathis) second generation, no-nonsense worker who feels like her work at the factory is the only thing that she’s good at. She works tirelessly while pregnant and fighting off Dez’s advances and finds the upmost pride in her work. Then there is Reggie (Wendell B. Franklin), the conflicted manager. Caught between doing what’s best for his workers while still trying to please those in positions higher than him.
I’d say for this show, my ignorance truly showed. I never thought much about factory careers honestly, because we’ve been so ingrained to look down on them. Unless you were the one’s making decisions, no one cared what happened on the floor. This play really takes us inside of the lives of the people who literally piece everything together. On the outside this work is just blue collar, working class but to these workers it was everything. While each of them had different reasons for working at the auto plant, each story added to the development of their character and made me invest in them much more as an audience member. What’s such a pleasure to watch, is how Morisseau is able to capture so many complex and layered relationships within the span of the two-hour show. There is the mentor-mentee, mother-children, brother-brother, even a touch of romance and sexual tension.
There’s a moment when Reggie is constantly questioned about his loyalties to the people he works for. Dez vents after an intense altercation with Reggie “once someone made up their mind about you, there is nothing I can do to change it” a concept that is even more prevalent today. In a day and age where there are a number of shootings of young innocent black and brown children and adults alike whose lives were taken due to assumptions. The assumptions are on both ends, both Reggie and Dez have preconceived notions about each other and it’s this moment that blurs the lines between what is white collar and blue collar. While Reggie is wearing business suits and meeting with HR he still has a lot to lose, his position as manager doesn’t make him any different from Dez in the eyes of other people. A message that Reggie will have to eventually learn the hard way.
Ultimately, all of these characters are doing what it takes to survive, as black men in America, as a single-mother, as blue-collar workers that are undervalued and sometimes unappreciated, they are doing what it takes to survive. This was a story about loss, hope, and survival which I believe personally sums up what it’s truly like to be a working class citizen in America. For these characters it wasn’t about the “American Dream” it was them living out their own dreams, and for them the factory and the people in it were enough.
Skeleton Crew runs until June 19th and the Linda Gross Theater, you can purchase tickets 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.