Ujima: New York Edition

The pandemic has provided us many benefits, including how we examine and eliminate the continuous oppression of groups of people in the US. In addition, Black Theatre United opened my eyes to oppression that was happening in black theater (unfortunately, I wasn’t surprised).  I have pledged my patron support by being more proactive with productions I choose to see.  I have been more selective on voting with my dollars for more diverse actors and leadership on Broadway (and in Houston). My trip to New York on Dr. MLK, Jr. Weekend 2023 made sure to continue that theme of support for black artists.

With a limited amount of time, I had to optimize my schedule because the city that never sleeps also has a way of making you feel like time is warped and moving at the speed of light. Prior to leaving Houston, I had plans to attend “The Piano Lesson” and dine at Tatiana, a new restaurant by Kwame Onwuachi.  To book at the restaurant, I constantly searched Resy for 6 weeks to finally learn that reservations are released 28 days prior. It was very difficult to score weekend reservations as I found it easier to get mid-week ones. Since, I was not arriving until the weekend I had to keep trying. I finally was able to get two nights of reservations for about 15 minutes before close. I am glad that I was able to do that as there was way more food that I wanted to eat than what I could consume in one seating.

On the first night, we quickly realized that the shareable plates are called that because they are quite large. However, my dietary restrictions came with limitations for the table. Nevertheless, we started with scallop pinchos, egusi dumplings and ended with braised oxtails with rice& peas. The peppa sauce was amazing which is why we had to order a few more sides of rice as that became my main entrée topped with the sauce.

Peppa Sauce by Chef Kwame Onwuachi. Photo by Mercedes Harris

I am pretty sure Kwame was not in the kitchen himself (I can taste when his hands have touched a dish), yet it was still great. The second night we ordered the okra (omg!) and more scallops with a shared dish of red snapper. My mouth is watering as I type this, and I am happy that I had the opportunity to enjoy the artistic talents of Chef Kwame’s creations once again. I topped off the meal with the bodega special dessert. I was SO full as I pre-gamed food at Le Jardinier after our quick visit to MOMA.

Crispy Okra at Tatiana Restaurant by Chef Kwame Onwuachi. Photo by Mercedes Harris

Speaking of MOMA, I was pleasantly surprised during my visit there (which my membership is included by being a member of Studio Museum Harlem). While we were discussing a painting by Mark Rothko, one of the security staff overheard us and asked more questions. She stopped as she was inspired by overhearing two “young” black women discussing art. We created a safe space for her to ask more questions. She ended up blessing us because she suggested the JAM (Just Above Midtown: Changing Spaces) exhibit which we would have missed without her suggestion.

Page from The Call and Post, featuring “Columbus Native Awarded Rockefeller Art Grant” about Linda Goode Bryant, 9/22/1973 (Displayed at MOMA)

JAM was an art gallery space created by my Spelman sister, Linda Goode Bryant, in 1974 to help create a space for black art by diverse artists. It was beautiful to see expressions of art during this time period as Goode Bryant was one of the first New York gallerists that paved the way of black art in galleries. Yet, she wanted us to focus beyond the commercialization of art which is a great reminder for us to remain centered about why we produce art. Eventually, she shifted her focus to become a non-profit organization in order not to be distracted by only selling art. I was happy that we were able to experience the exhibit.

R. Kenneth Bryant, son of Linda Goode Bryant at JAM in 1974. Photo by Mercedes Harris

When Houston-native, Brandon J. Dirden, urged his IG followers to see “Between Riverside and Crazy” I was intrigued.  I felt drawn to support Stephen McKinley Henderson as it is rare that we get to see a 73-year-old legend live on stage. Yet, I learned later that this show was also Common’s Broadway debut.  Unfortunately, I had to leave at intermission in order to make my reservation for Tatiana but I am hoping I can catch a simulcast to finish the show. From what I saw, all of the actors were wonderful.

My second show was “The Piano Lesson” which was directed by Spelman alumna, LaTanya Richardson Jackson and the led by Morehouse alumnus, John David Washington. Unfortunately, Samuel Jackson was not in the performance I attended. The energy of the show was still very high, and I am not sure how much higher it would have gone with Jackson present. Again, every cast member was phenomenal, and I must highlight how well John David Washington performed.

I am sure it is difficult making your own name when your father is “The Denzel Washington”, however, (don’t come for me) he might be an even more talented actor than his dad. I really felt him embody Boy Willie (and I really still can’t get over his skills in Black Kkklansman). Despite him sounding and sometimes at angles looking like Denzel, I really felt Boy Willie was embodied on the stage. It was a special moment to see all of that talent at one time.  Danielle Brooks (Berniece) was the glue that held everything together (just like her character). I have a personal connection to The Piano Lesson as it was the first and only scene that I directed in high school (and won State honors) yet, there were still parts where I couldn’t remember what would happen next. I stopped trying to remember and became engulfed in the moment that was captured by this special production.

The last show I was privileged to see was the early closing of “Ohio State Murders” starring Audra McDonald at the beautifully renovated and renamed James Earl Jones Theater. Initially, I was not interested in the show as the titled made me think it might have violence which is hard for me to watch. Yet, it kept surfacing and after strong recommendation, I decided to see it. I learned that the playwright, Adrienne Kennedy, is a 91-year-old black woman who has been writing plays for over 60 years but was often overlooked. The production directed by Kenny Leon (who I remember from living in Atlanta) was a Broadway debut for the play.

Merlex Picks Founder after “Ohio State Murders” last show with a picture of Audra McDonald. Photo by Mercedes Harris

The play explores the racism of our country during the 1950s but that is still pervasive today. I enjoyed Ms. Kennedy depicting black middle-class people during that time period which is rarely shown in plays. I can relate to having relatives in college and graduate school during the 50s era. Audra spent 75 minutes (no intermission) playing an older and younger version of the main character Suzanne Alexander. Once the show was over, one is perplexed if the events occurred in real life. Director Kenny Leon said after communicating with Ms. Kennedy over the preparation of the show, he believes about 50% may be based on her own life. Regardless of whether the murders happened or not, it left everyone with that drop in the stomach feeling. We all know that tragedies similar to what happened in the play happen often in this country and are usually publicized a specific way depending on the suspect or victim.

Cast & Crew of “Ohio State Murders” take their final bow for the show. Photo by Mercedes Harris

My trip to NYC was a beautiful experience and I’m grateful that I was able to support black artists (culinary, performing and visual). I encourage us to continue to search for art experiences that are not only diverse in production and performers but also less publicized. The shows were all very different and helped to showcase different periods of experience for black people in America. We want to continue to see shows and art that reflect the diversity of our country.

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