I had just finished my first day of Performing Arts teaching in Brooklyn and was excited to be around “grown-ups” to see Whorl Inside A Loop at Second Stage Theatre. It was opening night and we entered the theatre along with Ruben Santiago-Hudson, Danielle Brooks, and Rebecca Covington.
The first thing we noticed was how bare the stage was. The prop tables were visible; there were rusted folding chairs, and a single chalkboard. Strikingly, there were no curtains; nothing separating the performance from the audience. Then Derrick Baskin appeared holding a pamphlet that we would learn more about later. Baskin started and the way the audience immediately stopped their conversations was astonishing (I wish my students did that too!). As soon as he opened his mouth I was engaged, and this remained true for the next hour and forty minutes. I cried. I laughed. I was shocked. I was speechless. I was upset. I was angry. I was moved.
Whorl Inside A Loop is loosely based on Sherie Renee Scott’s autobiography. The play is told from the perspective of The Volunteer (Scott), a white Broadway actress who agrees (that’s what we are led to believe at first) to teach 12 classes at a maximum-security prison. The cast is primarily African-American men who, in addition to portraying the inmates the Volunteer works with, hold numerous secondary roles, like the prison staffers and the Volunteer’s sassy friends and family, with whom she shares the tales of life “behind bars.”
Derrick Baskin, Nicholas Christopher, Chris Myers, Ryan Quinn, Daniel J. Watts and Donald Webber, Jr all blew me away with their performances. I could go on about how amazing the actors were, but in that moment I was grateful that actors like these EXIST and that I was able to see them. While the show primarily features the interactions between the Volunteer and the inmates and friends, the true story and heart lie in the unfortunate courses of the men’s lives that are slowly revealed through the retelling of their experiences as personal narratives. It was in the inmates’ disadvantaged upbringings and the unfortunate circumstances that led them into crime in the first place and the long sentences they had to serve. It’s these narratives and stories that make this piece of theatre disturbing and, most importantly, real.
It is the vivid writing and compelling performances that successfully humanizes each of the prisoners, despite the fact that the men are all convicted murderers. A standout, Derrick Baskin brings a calming sincerity to his character, nicknamed Sunnyside, whose life took a dark turn at 13 after he saw his mother being arrested. He is described as the nicest person you’ll ever met, while the crime he is in prison for is unforgivable. The entire time, the audience is left to wonder how such a warm, optimistic man like Sunnyside could be capable of such a thing. Also imprisoned while still in his teens is Jeffrey, played brilliantly by Chris Myers. His life fell to pieces when his mother contracted HIV and died a year later. Completely devastated and having lost his way, Jeffrey confessed to a killing that he didn’t commit. His story and that performance were so deep that you could only hear the sniffling of audience members who were crying in the theatre.
The other actors are just as amazing. Nicholas Christopher, as Rick, recalls in haunting detail witnessing another inmate kill a prison official who had denied him the chance to attend his mother’s funeral. Daniel J. Watts gives a rhythmic reading of his character’s personal narrative. Ryan Quinn, as Source, doesn’t want to perform the story of his crime, saying, “Re-enacting it feels like glorifying it.”And Donald Webber Jr., as Bey, tells the heartbreaking story of a childhood encounter with a sheriff when he was only four years old that marked him for life.
The play also raises issues about the overwhelming number of Black men in prison, the importance of rehabilitation, and the unjust workings of the justice system. As the Volunteer observes at one point, “I think that I’ve done things that, if I were a Black man, I wouldn’t have gotten away with.” It was that aha moment that made me wish more shows like this could be produced.
Whorl Inside a Loop does not glorify these men or the crimes they admitted to committing. But as an audience member, it’s hard to listen to these stories without feeling an overwhelming sense of sympathy (or even empathy), sorrow, and lost hope over how their childhood experiences of poverty, abandonment, drugs, and neglect shaped the trajectories of their lives. The show can be summed up in a single line of the Volunteer, describing their narratives as “stories about guys who’ve lost their lives, but are still living.”
All performances are at Second Stage Theatre Midtown West located at 305 W. 43rd St. Tickets are on sale and can be purchased 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.
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