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Patrice Johnson Chevannes portrays a matriarch over the years in runboyrun and IN OLD AGE at New York Theatre Workshop
"Girl, I'm tired," admits Patrice Johnson Chevannes about her latest gig at New York Theatre Workshop. When she shares the specifics, it's easy to understand why. Seven times a week, she's playing the same character in two different plays presented back-to-back over three and a half hours!
Not that the seasoned stage actress is complaining. As the star of runboyrun and IN OLD AGE -- two parts in Mfoniso Udofia's nine-play cycle about multiple generations of the Nigerian-American Ufot family -- Johnson Chevannes realizes she has a plum part as immigrant matriarch Abasiama. In the previous Ufot Cycle installments seen at NYTW, Sojourners and Her Portmanteau, two different actresses played the role at various times in her life. For this production, Johnson Chevannes is getting the chance to explore Abasiama's evolution over many years. She's the only performer in both plays, and she's in almost every scene.
The shows have different directors: Loretta Greco for runboyrun and Awoye Timpo for IN OLD AGE. Johnson Chevannes had worked with Timpo twice before, on Good Grief at the Vineyard Theatre and The Homecoming Queen at Atlantic Theater Company, in which she costarred with Udofia, who is also an actress. Ironically, Greco, the director Johnson Chevannes didn't know, is the only one she auditioned for. When she got the call offering her Abasiama in both plays, she was shocked -- she assumed two different actresses would be cast. "I was surprised!" she says, but pleasantly so.
Johnson Chevannes' New York stage credits stretch back 25 years and include The Crucible on Broadway with Liam Neeson and shows at Theatre for a New Audience, Classic Stage Company, Irish Rep and other Off-Broadway stalwarts. But this is the first time she's played the same part in two plays. In runboyrun, a late-middle-aged Abasiama is grappling with her husband’s failing mind and their turbulent relationship. In IN OLD AGE, she is now a widow, sleeping on her living room sofa in a seemingly haunted house. "It wasn't until we started running the plays together that the links between the two of them started to actually settle within me," Johnson Chevannes says. "Before that, my brain was bifurcated."
Abasiama's path through the Ufot Cycle takes her from dutiful daughter and young wife (in Sojourners), to mother of four grown children (in runboyrun and Her Portmanteau), to her twilight years (IN OLD AGE). Johnson Chevannes says the maternal nature of her character was reflected in her collaboration with the two women directors. "Everybody was so caring about the process," she says. This was especially important given a rehearsal schedule that sometimes required Johnson Chevannes to be in two places at once. "These directors and Mfoniso fought for every bit of time, every bit of nuance, knowing that they were up against the clock," she says. "There were no attitudes, none of that." She likens their determination and ingenuity to that of her own Caribbean immigrant mother, a registered nurse who raised eight kids and sent them all to college. "You know when a mom has a bunch of children and $20 and you wonder how they do it?" she says. "You plan!"
It's not just the length of the two plays that wears Johnson Chevannes out, it's their emotional weight. The works explore a constellation of issues that include bereavement, domestic abuse and post-traumatic stress. "I strive for a physical sense of relaxation and calm, so that I can do the journey -- to let all the stuff go through me," Johnson Chevannes says.
In addition to acting, she's also a writer, director, producer and a drama coach, so working overtime is her natural state. Still, runboyrun and IN OLD AGE have proved so challenging, Johnson Chevannes has been forced to step up her game. "This production is like a marathon, so I had to get in shape," she says. "I never was a breakfast person, but now I eat in the morning so I can take my vitamins!"
Regina Robbins is a writer, director, native New Yorker and Jeopardy! champion. She has worked with several NYC-based theatre companies and is currently a Core Company Member with Everyday Inferno Theatre.
Top image: Patrice Johnson Chevannes and Chiké Johnson in runboyrun. Photos by Joan Marcus.