By Arlene McKanic
“unFRAMED,” the autobiographical one man play by Iyaba Ibo Mandingo, will be performed at York College at noon Feb. 24. This will be its only performance in Queens before it moves on to other points in New York state and, hopefully, a run in Manhattan. The writer spoke to the playwright and Brent Buell, the director, as they took a break from rehearsal in Manhattan.
“We met at Sing Sing prison,” Buell remembers. “But neither of us was incarcerated!” Buell was teaching acting and theater to the inmates. One day Mandingo, already reknown as a slam poet, came to help an actor who was to star in a film about an incarcerated slam poet.
“We met as we were coming into the prison and began to talk. We got inside and the first thing he did was [his poem] ‘41 Times,’ about Amadou Diallo,” Buell recalls. “I was involved in the midst of that case and I actually cried. We became friends.” Mandingo warned Buell that one day he’d write a play about his life and Buell was going to direct it. Ten years passed before it happened. Last June they gave a reading at Playwright’s Horizon. Broadway veteran Jane Dubin was in the audience and is now “unFRAMED”’s executive producer.
Both men like the fact that they can still improve the play and have close contact with the audience. “We get great audience feedback during the Q & A sessions,” says Mandingo. “As a new playwright and actor it’s awesome to have the opportunity to go back and fine tune some things. This is really really beautiful for us. We get an audience in venues that are so intimate we can not only see their faces but we can see their reactions too.”
Mandingo, born Kenny Athel George DeCruise in Antigua in 1969, came to America in 1980. “That’s where the play starts, with an 11-year old boy coming to America,” he says. His family settled in Connecticut because it was in New England, and they figured its customs would be closer to Old England, Antigua’s mother country.
DeCruise changed his name in 1993. Mandingo is a nickname his college buddies gave him and he couldn’t get rid of. Iyaba is taken from “yaba,” a West African clay cooking pot, and the Rastafarian saying “I and I” which means “everybody.” He took the name Ibo from the leader of a reggae group.
The play runs 90 minutes and each time Mandingo paints his portrait — the play’s original name was “Self-Portrait.” The painting, which is different every time, is later bought by an audience member. Mandingo has no problem with painting for an hour and a half, but acting and following stage directions was daunting. He says Buell is “a magnificent director. I’ve always been comfortable as a poet, but acting on stage is completely different. Brent and Jane are excellent teachers. [They’ve] taught me a lot in the last seven, eight months. I’m so grateful.”
While they hope to end up in Manhattan, Buell admits that touring is a process. “We’re finding our way. Jane Dubin is a Tony award winning Broadway producer so she knows far more about the path of a show.”
When asked why the play was put on at noon, he explains, “So the students can come. They have a two-hour break called club hours.”
Jamaica has a large Caribbean population and there’s much enthusiasm in the neighborhood about the play — more enthusiasm than there seem to be seats. Therefore, “unFRAMED” might be asked to return for the Fall Festival.
“It’s a problem,” says Mandingo. “But it’s a problem we like very much!”
“unFRAMED” is sponsored by York College’s Cultural Diversity Department.
If You Go
When: Feb 24, noon – 2 p.m.
Where: York College Performing Arts Center Small Theater, 94 – 20 Guy R. Brewer Blvd, Jamaica
Contact: Janice Cline firstname.lastname@example.org 718-262-2497