Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story
I’ m reminded of those Hamilton lyrics every single time I go to see a show that was written by a person of color. But tonight, this line has an even more special meaning when a show is written by a black woman playwright, and not just one but five short plays.
Something special is happening uptown at Harlem’s National Black Theatre, this special thing is in the form of The New Black Fest (in collaboration with Dominique Morisseau) curated , Un-Tamed Hair Body Attitude, Short Plays by Black Women. A collection of plays that speak to and speak on the many issues that plague black women every day that aren’t talked about, let alone written about. Yet, at the intimate black box on 125th Street, these stories are being told, and beautifully so I don’t even know where do begin.
If this review seems a bit personal, that’s because it is. As a black woman in the theatre world, seeing shows like UnTamed fill me with pride, joy and gratitude. If I may go off on a quick tangent, theatre and art in general, is more than escapism for me (and I’d assume for others as well). There is something powerful about art, an indescribable feeling when you are sitting in a theatre and watching brilliant artists create and work in front of you. You feel connected to the words they are saying and feel the very emotions they feel, that’s the kind of theatre I love most.
The National Black Theatre had a hashtag that said #artheals and that couldn’t be more true with what was presented tonight. The stories were bold and nuanced, the acting and performances were embedded in truth and authenticity. Art not only healed but it sparked powerful dialogue and thoughts that gave me more urgency and drive, I was rejuvenated.
Un-Tamed didn’t hold back in any way. The short plays featured a range of topics about black womanhood in our communities such as; natural vs relaxed hair and tackled colorism in Cori Thomas’ The Hair Play, standards of beauty and skin lightening were at the forefront in Jocelyn Bioh’s White-N-Lucious, strong black woman archetypes and black femininity (or lack thereof) in Chisa Hutchinson’s Melanintervention, unwanted and often scary sexual advances in cabs in Lenelle Moise’s San Francisco Cab, and what might be the most painstakingly one yet the deals with the issues of black girlhood being taken, black girls and women voices being silenced, and their stories hidden in Nikkole Salter’s Peace Officer Privilege.
All five dealing with completely different issues but one thing remained constant, at the center of it all was a black woman. During a time where #blacklivesmatter and #oscarssowhite , black woman face a greater issue. Black women are armed with the task of being both black and women, a concept that seems hard for the greater world to understand, or maybe they just don’t care, or perhaps both? That therein lies the problem (at the talkback out of the 100 theaters approached about this project only 26 wanted to pick it up).
The character Yolanda (played brilliantly by Erin Cherry) in the play Melanintervention said it best, we [black women] have to fight but it doesn’t mean we want to fight. Black women fight for their basic rights, they fight for jobs, they fight to be seen a women, they fight to be seen as human beings, they fight for their children, their men, their community but who fights for the black woman?
This shouldn’t read as “woe is me”, or even trying to pity the black woman after all, who would? Black women are some of this worlds more resilient human beings. Black women are like O negative blood, gives of itself and get’s nothing in return, yet finds the power to still give until it’s all gone. There is magic in the ability to do that, but it doesn’t mean it needs to be that way. Black women’s stories are just as important as anyone else and they deserve to be shared and I’m grateful that the National Black Theatre and The New Black Fest took a chance and gave life to these stories. To the amazing playwrights, directors, actors, producers, anyone involved in getting this project to the masses here at Broadway Black we offer our thanks. What you do is important and deserves to be seen all over, you truly embody what it means to be Broadway Black.
Un-Tamed also stars MaameYaa Boafo, Ben Chase, Ronald Kirk, Nedra McClyde, Sharina Martin, Ambien Mitchell, Megan Robinson, Debargo Sanyal, Carolyn Michelle Smith & Jennifer Tsay
Un-Tamed is running until this Monday, March 28th. Do yourself a favor and support what is happening on 125th because it’s beautiful, it’s magical, it’s transformative. 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.