Dates chosen, flights booked and a journey across the sea to see what’s easily one of my top ten favorite musicals of all time, Dreamgirls, was on the horizon. Only seven agonizing months of playing the waiting game and I was on a red-eye to London before I knew it.
I knew the music. I watched Jennifer Holliday’s performance of “And I Am Telling You” on YouTube a million times in high school. I was first in line (and first row in the movie theatre) to see the film adaptation. I have the script, recordings, books, but NOTHING compared to seeing a live production of Dreamgirls and I didn’t regret a single moment.
The lights dimmed and four of the most gorgeous, chocolatey women emerged on stage in the most beautiful gowns (costume designs by Greg Barnes) crooning “I’m Looking For Something” and I could have passed out in my seat right there, but would have missed the next 2 hours of glitzy costumes, bejeweled set pieces, and dazzling lights (designed by Hugh Vanstone).
Even in the midst of all the glitz and glamor, the show belongs to Amber Riley. Playing the soulful lead singer Effie White, soon demoted to a backing vocalist, Riley proves she not only has the powerhouse voice that keeps ringing in your ears well after she sings that last “me”, but also the heart and soul Effie needs to remain a character we want to root for. I expect more than a few awards for Ms. Riley.
Image: Brinkhoff & Mögenburg
It’s not a hard task as White, the stand-out talent in their small-town girl group, The Dreamettes, she’s the voice that gets them noticed by cunning “manager” Curtis Taylor, Jr. (the gorgeous Joe Aaron Reid). Originally backup singers for the soul star Jimmy “Thunder” Early (hilariously played Adam J. Bernard) — a solo artist with a knack for doing things his own way — Curtis’ plans for the Dreamettes extend beyond backup gigs, to mainstream success of their own. Meaning a new sound, a new look and a new name. Curtis bumps docile group member, Deena Jones (Liisi LaFontaine), to lead at Effie’s expense in order to appeal to the cross-over audience. Only Effie’s not really on board.
The dancing is incredible, namely during “Stepping To The Bad Side.” The trio of Curtis, Jimmy and Effie’s songwriter brother C.C (my new favorite Tyrone Huntley) is unmatched. I could listen to the three of them sing harmonies all day.
The West End premiere also includes “Listen”, the song sung by Beyoncé in the 2006 film, but instead sung here as a powerful duet between Effie and Deena. Listening to both LaFontaine and Riley sing that song together, your eyes are bound to get a little misty.
As expected, showstopper “And I Am Telling You”, brought audience members to tears and their feet, but I’d argue Riley’s take on “I Am Changing” was just as — if not more– of a powerful moment. A declaration of Effie coming to terms with her imperfections and her willingness to accept change is a theme relatable for many, myself included.
Under all the lights and glitter there’s still a message and story to tell, one of the flaws of assimilation and originality. While there are financial and social gains in appealing to the white gaze, they also come at the cost of one’s integrity and identity – of their soul — as Jimmy Early might say.
If you find yourself in London anytime soon, go see this show. If you can’t make the trip buy the cast recording when it’s released next month and if you’re like me hold out hope for a Broadway transfer soon.
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.