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I flew into JFK 26 years ago this month from London with 2 suitcases. Tonight I fly out of JFK and back to London. I take another 2 suitcases (+ 22 boxes that are on a ship somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic).

I leave behind a varied and rich tapestry of friends and neighbors. Incredibly, some of these dear people I’ve known for practically all of my time here, others for a decade or more, and then others I’ve only known a few months. Many friendships were formed and deepened through my tenure at Redeemer Presbyterian Church, first as a timid church goer 18 years ago, and more recently as a staff member for the past 8 years. Others developed in the different tennis leagues I played hard in and those folks generally didn’t know anything about the work I did and it didn’t matter. And with others, relationships developed at Uptown Writers and in the writing groups I joined as we critiqued each others’ pieces and encouraged one another with our craft.

I will deeply miss this web of extraordinary people who I’ve had the honor and privilege of knowing & walking beside.( But am so grateful for the world-wide web and the wonders of technology that will allow many connections to continue, albeit in new forms.)

There are other significant losses too.

I’m grieving having to leave my apartment – though grateful for new friends who will be moving in here. I’ll miss living in my building with the 24 hour security guards, a crew of hard-working folks who don’t make a whole lot of money but who always made me feel welcome especially at the end of weary days. I’ll miss the neighbors on my floor, particularly 90-year-old P. She and I wept together last night as we said goodbye and she articulated what I didn’t have the courage to say: “I’m sad because may not see you again.” Perhaps not in this life, I reminded her, but in the next one, where God is waiting for us both. I’m sad that daily walks in the spectacular Ft Tryon Park won’t be possible anymore. And I’m already missing Redeemer’s worship services, and the incredible classical concerts we’d hear following the benediction every Sunday morning with some of the most accomplished musicians this city has to offer.

Yes I’ve been extraordinarily blessed here in this city that never sleeps. I have found places and spaces of deep rest here over the last quarter century and for that I am eternally grateful. As I result, I leave this city a little wiser (and with a head of grey hair to show for it!), but more humble, more joyful, more hopeful, and more courageous. And with a deep sense of how Loved I am.

I’m moving to live with my mother for the final stages of her life to show her how loved she is. She is hugely excited –a confirmation that this time has fully come.

So long New York. A new adventure across the sea beckons.

May God be with you ’til we meet again.

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familiar feb2016It may be the first time that 10 black female actors are appearing on Broadway (Eclipsed @ the Golden Theatre on 45th) or off Broadway (Familiar @ Playwrights Horizons on 42nd) at the same time in the space of 3 blocks. We have the award-winning Zimbabwean American actor (The Walking Dead) and playwright Danai Gurira to thank for that. I had the privilege of seeing Familiar last weekend and then hearing Ms. Gurira talk about the play after the show. In broad strokes, the play is a window into the tensions that are exposed in a Zimbabwean American family living in wintery Minnesota on the eve of the older daughter Tendi’s wedding to a “white boy” who works in international development. Like any wedding – not to talk of an interracial/intercultural one – family stresses that have remained contained bubble up to the surface when the joining of two people/two families is at stake.

The first act had me and my (Nigerian) friend Ruth howling through much of it and I’m talking belly aching laughter. Picture an African version of My Big Fat Greek Wedding and then add the complexities of trying to please Aunt Annie from Zim who’s flown in and insists that Tendi’s fiance pay a bride price, involving cows. Meanwhile, the girls’ mother, a fiercely proud MIT-educated college professor and Annie’s younger sister, is vehemently opposed to anything Zimbabwean having raised her two daughters to be as American as McDonalds. Throw in the daughters’ father, a successful lawyer, pining for home and his younger artsy daughter, Nyasha, who’s just returned from Zim, jazzed about having had a chance to be exposed to the Shona language and who’s brought back a stunning mbira (thumb piano). If that weren’t enough, the couple getting married are both Christians and virgins – facts that become relevant to the plot as well.

The themes are not just familiar, but it’s a hugely ambitious play. The second act turns far more serious than the first when tensions reach a breaking point and we come to learn the hidden reason for so much (though not all) of the tension in this family… And then we discover that the character that has been largely overshadowed in the run up to the wedding, Tendi’s younger sister, Nyasha – who’s name aptly means grace – is the one through whom redemption comes. The final scene with the daughters’ parents tentatively dancing to the sound to Nyasha playing Shona music on the mbira almost made me cry.

A review I heard on wnyc this morning criticized the play for having too many extraneous, undeveloped characters which meant Gurira “missed an opportunity to connect audiences with their point of view.” I disagree. At the speakout after the show, Gurira – before this particular review was aired – spoke about her intentionality in creating meaty, substantial parts for each character. A playwright who feels called to tell the stories of women of African descent, she’s committed to developing roles that an actor can really “sink their teeth into.” Bravo Gurira! It showed. The acting was first rate and the Zim accents and intermitent use of Shona was convincing. Familiar is not just funny but fantastic!

(Photo credit: www.playwrightshorizons.org)

cherie color 14feb2016Yesterday, I took my friend Cherie to lunch at the local diner. I first met Cherie 3 or 4 years ago when she began to appear on the benches in the mezzanine level of my subway station. One morning I sat down beside her and instead of dropping a dollar into her palm, I decided to offer her a conversation. Over a few weeks, we became “subway buddies.” She’d comment on my clothes, I’d ask how she was doing, and from time to time, I offered her food I was carrying — until one day after leaving her with the remains of my (very spicy) Thai dinner, she let me know very defiantly that she no longer wanted my leftover food. Fair enough. From then on, I occasionally gave her money but mostly just smiled, chatted, and even shook her hand at times, being mindful that folks with no home rarely experience physical touch. Cherie tends to disappear in the spring, summer, and fall, and several winters ago, she dropped out of sight all together. Late last year, she re-appeared, in the same spot where I first met her.

Recently I began to think about trying to get to know her a bit better by having a meal with her. On Saturday night, as I was heading out for the evening, I gave her $5 and encouraged her to get some soup. It was the coldest day of the year and I was concerned for her, and wondered what she planned to do to keep warm in the sub terrain of the station. I should have known better. The hot soup idea seemed intriguing but I could tell she had no intention of going to a diner. And since she had nowhere else to go, she planned to stay right there on her bench. I shuddered thinking about that, but as I ran for my train, I decided that if she was there when I came home from church the next day, I’d invite her to lunch.

When I asked her, she immediately shot back, “What’s the occasion?” Without hesitating, I said, “It’s Valentine’s Day.” She put her just-lit cigarette out, grabbed her bag, and declared, “OK, let’s go.”

We settled ourselves into a corner table @ the Hudson View Diner. She chose french toast, scrambled eggs, bacon and cheese. I had a farmer’s omelette with home fries. At first I asked her questions about her family and learned a few interesting facts: she was born in Cypress Hills, Queens, the 4th of 8 children; she doesn’t get along with her mother who now lives in East New York; her father’s birthday is Feb 15 (today); and she has a 37-year-old son who has a restaurant in Harlem which we talked about going to check out. “On me,” she insisted, “On me.” But she didn’t seem to want to continue making conversation so I stopped the questions and we ate the rest of our meal in silence.

When she was done, she looked around and said, “It’s really cozy in here. If I had a job and worked in here, it’s so cozy, I’d just want to go to sleep.” We laughed about that. She also thanked me heartily for lunch. After she’d ordered a second cup of coffee – as much to warm her up as to heat up her hands I suspect – we headed back out into the frigid afternoon. She tried unsuccessfully at two stores to buy loose filter cigarettes (“lucies”), and then I walked down back into the subway with her. She was heading to 42nd street to take care of something there — I couldn’t quite catch what and gave up after asking her 3 times. As I swiped her in, she slid up toward the turnstile, turned and kissed me (!), and then hurried off to catch her train.

Still stunned by her affection, I walked 10 brisk blocks home, musing about my most unexpected valentine’s day gift…

Today, on account of the blizzard pummeling the east coast of the US, the city which never sleeps has ground to a standstill — and that includes Broadway. Yes, all matinees and evening performances were cancelled earlier today. The hope is that by tomorrow afternoon, the storm will have blown away, and the city will re-awaken, the subways and buses will begin to move again, in time for Sunday’s matinees.

But in the meantime, here’s a touching Broadway story…

Last Weds night, a group of us from our midtown office decided to walk over to the Richard Rogers Theater to try our luck in the popular lottery for a front row seat to the performance of Hamilton that night. (We were hopeful. After all, a work friend had won front row tickets to the show the previous evening (!), and several others from the office had been lottery winners too. Apparently, their success is not unconnected to how one folds their ticket, it seems, but that’s a story for a different blog post.) As I put on my coat, a friend and colleague, Jess, was heading out, and she, being a lover of all things Hamilton – she’s memorized all the words to the soundtrack – decided to stop by with us on her way home. We joined 300+ other hopefuls, wrote our names on a piece of paper, tried to fold them in that special way, flung them into the basket, and waited on a crowded sidewalk in the winter cold.

The first name was called and cheers went up as that person dashed through the crowd and up to the front to present their ID, hand over their cash ($10/tkt, 2 max), and pick up their tickets. The second name was called and there was more yelling – and this time some groans too. Then the third name was called – and as God would have it – it was our friend, Jess! She blushed with disbelief, her eyes got tearful and then she scurried off to claim her tickets.

The show was in two hours and with three young kids at home, she had some juggling to do: she texted her babysitter and asked her to stay later that evening and then rushed home. Together they got the two youngest kids (4 1/2 & 2) into their pajamas and ready for bed after dinner. With C, her oldest @ 7, since she was having a special night out with Mom, she got to put on a pretty dress.

When the others were settled and in bed, Mom took C into the hallway and told her they were going to Hamilton. At first C couldn’t believe it. When she realized that it was really true, she started dancing and jumping up and down saying, “Nobody loves Hamilton more than I do!”

The show did not disappoint. They were in the front center – and C was given a booster seat so she could have a perfect view of the stage. She sat up, alert and awake, through every scene and rap.

By the end of the evening, both C and Jess were overwhelmed with tears. During the closing ovation, Lin-Manuel Miranda looked right at them, winked, and patted his heart. They were beyond ecstatic.

The next day, Jess couldn’t stop talking about their spectacular evening. I was both thrilled and envious. When she’d dropped C off at school, after letting her sleep in, C’s teachers told her how jealous they were too. Still on a high, Jess decided to tweet Miranda to thank him for such a special treat. And this was his response:

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How’s that for a sweet down-to-earth Broadway response: a 7 year old winking back at a star!

A month from today, Nigerians will go to the polls to elect a President for a 5 year term. For a nation that has been independent from Britain for almost 55 years – and with much of it’s checkered past littered with military heads of state, a national “democratic” election (supposedly – that remains to be seen) is hardly an insignificant event.

However, what gives me pause before any votes are even cast is that the current President, Goodluck Jonathan, has been chosen by his party, the PDP, to be their presidential candidate once again. This is despite the fact that his leadership has been appalling, non-existent, ineffective, and embarrassing, at least as far as his response to the situation with Boko Haram is concerned. Attacks throughout the northeast of the country but extending as far south as the capital city of Abuja have taken thousands of lives and left entire villages decimated and destroyed since the insurgency began in 2002. There is minimal accountability: these deaths go unreported – often due to the risk of violence required to get near to the sites of the crimes – let alone investigated, so the perpetrators take life without impunity. They know they can get away with it.

Rather than be contained, the situation appears to be escalating and there is minimal evidence that the government at the state or national level has the will or the courage or the impetus to contain the violence. (Nigerians I’ve talked to – both those who live there and abroad – are convinced that some very high up in the government are benefiting greatly from this insurgency. Hence, the lack of motivation to mobilize the resources necessary to tackle it. As long as the oil money keeps flowing, those in power will continue to ignore the crisis that is building.)

That Goodluck Jonathan would issue a statement condemning the attacks in Paris last week (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2015/01/13/goodluck-jonathan-boko-ha_n_6464928.html) and yet make no statement whatsoever regarding what may be the worst attack by Boko Haram so far, days earlier on Jan 3 (http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-30794829) is disheartening at best, and pathetic at worst. And of course, despite the worldwide outrage at the abduction of 200+ girls from Chibok last spring, nothing more has been heard about the whereabouts of the girls except those who escaped of their own accord. Or what the government is doing to try to investigate this kidnapping and bring to justice those behind this attack.

How can we expect others to believe that Nigerian lives matter, when the man elected to lead his nation is unable to communicate that message to his people, let alone marshall the type of response needed to tackle this desperate situation? Over and over again, bombs are detonated (the latest one by a 10 year old girl), villages are attacked and burned, throats are slit (literally) and there is silence from Aso Rock, the Presidential Villa.

Who will stand for us?

dr ada igonoh ebola survivor nov2014

I continue to find myself gripped by the events surrounding the Ebola outbreak that continues to devastate Guinea, Liberia and Sierra Leone. As 2015 begins, there are now 20,000 reported cases and 8,000 deaths – and counting. I also keep reflecting on how thankful I am that the disease was successfully contained (at least so far) in Nigeria, Africa’s most populous nation of 170 million – and counting.

Ebola arrived there at the end of July when a Liberian man who had Ebola and turned about to be extremely infectious flew into to Lagos from Monrovia. He denied that he’d been in contact with any Ebola patients or that he’d been at a burial recently, though he’d gone to Liberia from the US, where he lived, to bury his sister who’d died from Ebola. Due to his failure to provide this crucial information, it took several days before he was tested for Ebola and the appropriate preventive measures put in place. A number of health workers who cared for him were infected with Ebola and some died but fortunately the disease did not spread in ways it might have.

With all the reports coming out of Nigeria about the relentless attacks of the Islamic militant group Boko Haram, limiting the spread of Ebola was a huge national triumph. And in many ways, I think the true significance of this containment got lost in the haze of the international community’s attempts to face the enormity of what was unfolding further up the coast of West Africa in the worst affected nations.

Several months ago, I wrote here about the heroic efforts of Dr. Adadevoh, a senior doctor at First Consultant’s Hospital where the Liberian man was admitted. Sadly, her leadership and courage in caring for this patient ultimately cost this mother of one her life: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-29685127 . But she played a key role in preventing a catastrophe. Recently, I came across an inside account from another female doctor, Dr Ada Igonoh, who was also involved in the care of the Liberian man. She too contracted Ebola – but after battling heroically for several weeks, she survived. Her remarkable and sobering account was posted on Bill Gates’ blog: http://www.gatesnotes.com/Health/Surviving-Ebola-Dr-Ada-Igonoh .

Her story gives us a vivid inside view of the terror infected health workers are facing on the front lines of this outbreak. In Dr. Igonoh’s case, the power of her faith in God to sustain her in the face of such fear is remarkable and her determination to live and the unwavering support of her Pastor are also particularly noteworthy.

(Photo credit: http://www.nta.ng)

nneka okafor kibeho dec2014

Last Friday evening, almost on a whim, I went with a friend to see a play that was entering its final weekend. I was intrigued when I heard ‘Our Lady of Kibeho’ was written by Katori Hall, a young playwright whose ‘The Mountaintop’ several years earlier on Broadway had garnered awards and lots of attention. That play featured Samuel L Jackson as Martin Luther King, Jr and Angela Bassett as a maid whom Dr. King had an extended conversation with on what turned out to be his final night alive. While the performances were strong, the show included some supernatural elements at its conclusion which I found ruined what had come before. Still, I was curious about ‘Our Lady’ which was highly recommended by arts reviewers on my local radio station and which, I thought, might lend itself more readily to the supernatural. I was not disappointed.

Set in Rwanda, ‘Our Lady’ is based on a true story of 3 girls at a Catholic high school in the 1980s who claim visitations by the Virgin Mary. These sightings occur repeatedly over a period of  years and among the things she tells and shows them is a warning of the violence that is to befall this nation 10 years later. I was unfamiliar with this story which took place in the village of Kibeho (“chi be ho”), despite my keen interest in Rwanda and the subsequent ways forgiveness and reconciliation have been woven into the fabric of that nation following the tragic genocide of almost 1 million people over just 3 months in April of 1994.  Reports of visitations from Mary had occurred in several places in Europe but it was the first time this occurred in Africa which contributed to both local and international skepticism as to whether it was really true. In fact in the play, an envoy from the Vatican is sent to verify whether the girls’ accounts of seeing and hearing from Mary are credible. We as the audience observe some of girls’ experiences and are invited to decide this for ourselves. Is Mary really communicating with and through them or are the girls making the whole thing up to garner attention?

From the minute I walked into the 300 person space, one of three that is part of the Signature Theatre on 42nd Street, I felt as I was back in East Africa again. The set resembled many secondary schools I’ve seen in Uganda, banana trees framed the stage, and the horizon offered a view of lush rolling hills. Rwanda is known as “the land of a thousand hills”. Recall that the hotel featured in the movie ‘Hotel Rwanda’ was called Mille Collines – 1,000 hills. Turns out Rwanda is so spectacularly beautiful that Rwandans like to joke that its where God goes on vacation. The priest sent by the Vatican at one point in the play counters that, God may vacation in Rwanda, but he lives in Rome.

The two main characters were Africans and as a result, they were extremely convincing (which doesn’t often happen when African-American actors try to play Africans. They often struggle with the accent which is an immediate give-away.) A Kenyan actor, Owiso Odera, played a Rwandan priest, the head of the school, who struggles to come to terms with whether to believe these events. The main actress, Nneka Okafor, who played the first schoolgirl to experience the visitations, was Nigerian-American. She was outstanding. Her powerful performance conveyed an unusual combination of innocence, humility and courage. It was out her mouth that the words “truth is not afraid of the machete” were spoken.

Sadly the play’s two month run ended on Sunday. This was the play’s debut but it’s sure to appear somewhere else in the next year or two – and I wouldn’t be surprised if it becomes a film one day. Hall, the playwright, disclosed in an interview that she was looking for a fresh way to write about the genocide, to better understand for herself what led to those terrible events. She learned about the visitations during a trip to Rwanda in 2009 when she visited the shrine now built to Our Lady in Kibeho. Focusing on three poor, Rwandan girls in a small village in the most Christian of African countries, Hall has succeeded in giving us new ways to understand the complex intertwining of ethnic tensions, Catholicism, political power, and colonialism  – Rwanda was under Belgian rule – on the psyche of a nation.

Photo: Nneka Okafor by Joan Marcus, courtesy of Signature Theatre.