Through lens of street hoops, Roxbury native brings life stories to stage

Onaje Woodbine's play "Black Gods of the Asphalt", based on his book of the same name, examines the cross-section of religion, hip-hop and street basketball, through the prism of the courts in his native Roxbury. Photo credit Brendan C. Hall/ESPNBoston.com

ANDOVER, Mass. -- Onaje Woodbine has spent nearly two months hemming and hawing over nearly every inch of this elaborate stage setup, here on the campus of Phillips Academy.

Look up, and basketball hoops surround the stage on three sides, with chained netting and various fluorescent tones of spray-paint practically mimicking a Jackson Pollack abstract. Look below, and the detail is vivid enough that you’d think he brought in actual concrete to make the basketball court.

Hours, days, sometimes weeks went into every painstaking particular, from the assorted trash sprinkled across the chain-link fence at stage left; to the Biggie Smalls silhouette etched across the brick wall at stage right; to the life-sized street art mural arching over it all from the very back of the stage.

And when Woodbine closes his eyes, those halcyon days of his youth in the rough-and-tumble streets of Boston’s Roxbury neighborhood, flash before him. He lights up, rattling off enough nostalgic memories to fill a book.

Earlier this year, Woodbine published that book, “Black Gods of the Asphalt: Religion, Hip-Hop and Street Basketball”, an examination of the sport as an urban escape, told through the lens of some of the legendary Roxbury courts. This coming weekend, his students at Phillips Academy, where he teaches philosophy and religion, will perform this play, of the same title. Next month, Woodbine will be taking it to Oprah Winfrey’s academy in South Africa.

Woodbine has big plans for his life’s work. After taking this to the stage, he wants to turn this into a movie. In so many ways, this feels like the culmination of the lessons brought upon him by the ghosts of streetball past.

“It feels like I am doing it for them,” Woodbine says. “It just feels like they are being heard in some ways.”

And there are plenty of voices to be heard. There’s the youth basketball coach who acted as his father figure, and the coach’s mother, matriarch of the block. All the friends he lost to the streets, passed away or in prison.

There are happy parts, and there are equal parts pain. He remembers wandering around the Conklin Street courts looking for his long-time mentor and youth coach, Manny Wilson, the day after he died in a car crash, with a Boston Herald photographer capturing his bewilderment.

There are the countless fight-or-flight moments. He recalls his baptism into those same Conklin courts, following a close friend, “T-Big”, as a nine-year-old down to a pickup game, where the realities of the dangers in his Roxbury neighborhood were refreshed as nearly two-dozen gang members squared off in a brawl.

“They were like, ‘T, who’s this?’ -- T’s brother was a major gang fighter,” he recalls. “He was like ‘It’s my boy’, and they were like, ‘Does he have any game?’ I get out there and I just played like my life depended on it.”


Woodbine won over a lot of fans with his play on the courts throughout his adolescence, eventually leading him to stardom at Newton South High School, where he was bused as part of Boston’s METCO program, then to Yale University. Like so many Roxbury youths in each generation, basketball is an escape as much as it is temple, the courts serving as the breeding ground for some of Boston’s best point guards over the years, from Dana Barros to Wayne Turner to Will Blalock to Shabazz Napier.

To understand how this all came to a head, one must first understand why Woodbine left basketball in the first place.

After his sophomore season at Yale ended in 2000, a season in which he led the Bulldogs in scoring, Woodbine abruptly quit to focus on ventures outside of the realm of sport, ventures that included a calling to study philosophy and religion, among other reasons he gave in an opinion column for the Yale Daily News at the time.

Last month, in a piece for the Chronicle of Higher Education, Woodbine expounded further on his reasons behind quitting, painting a dark culture of athletics at school, one with little intellectual value that “demonizes” people of color. In one particular passage, he describes an email exchange with an assistant coach, who said if he quit the admissions office “would be less likely to ‘give’ other ‘minorities’ an opportunity to matriculate there.”

(For his part, Woodbine says he has reconciled with Yale’s head coach, James Jones, since the article’s publishing)

In 2001, Woodbine made his first trip to Africa, to Ghana. That set off a long spiritual journey of awakening that had first sprouted back when he was 15 and had reconnected with his father, Robert Woodbine, a Daoist tai chi instructor and an acupuncturist, who told him to listen to his inner voice through two weeks of meditating.

“At least in my imagination, it’s always held this romantic place for me. Because of slavery, it’s difficult to know where exactly we come from, so I’ve never been able to go back physically and say 'This is my homeland, these are my ancestors'. In my own mind and imagination I’ve been able to go back, to have a place in my mind and imagination where I am a human being. All human beings, we all want to know we come from somewhere. It really has this mythical status for me, and I think a lot of African-Americans. Then, as you know, to be able to go back and experience the rituals and the magic in the culture, that really solidified my humanity.”

In 2012, after a decade of life-changing visits and intellectual spars in Nigeria, Woodbine completed his initiation as a Yoruba shaman. Along the way, he discovered the parallels between religious order and his beloved street basketball were striking, which he turned into a thesis for his PhD at Boston University in 2014.

“Black Gods” is an extension of this thesis, full of colorful tales of the real-life characters and haunting heartbreaks that shaped his upbringing. And from this, Woodbine created the narrative for his play of the same title, set to run this upcoming weekend at Phillips, then again next month in South Africa.

In this play, there are three main characters -- two boys, C.J. and Jason, and a girl, Lightsee, based in part of Onaje’s own upbringing. Unbeknownst to them, they are reincarnations of people from West Africa, who have been born again in 2000 in the streets of Roxbury, and have to recover the memory that their purpose is to bring healing to the community through basketball.

There is no better source material for Woodbine’s character development than the very people that shaped him. Woodbine spoke with great enjoyment about his favorite character in this play, a 58-year-old woman named Dora, a voice of reason who speaks to spirits in a very street-wise vernacular.

The role of women as pillars of strength is stressed throughout the play. On the court, Woodbine -- himself raised by a single mother -- sees a maternal symbol, a womb that gives back opportunities for rebirth.

“Young black men in the streets can’t become who they truly are meant to be without recognizing the value of women,” he said. “It’s through women that these young men learn who they really are, they are able to transform their understanding of blackness through women.”

Countless other characters, though, proved far more difficult in their development. Their stories, taken straight from his book, were often too tragic to bear (a number of the characters were given pseudonyms).

Take “Marlon”, for instance. One night when he was 10 years old, he had to fight off his stepfather from an attempted rape, then carried his sister through the snow to his grandmother’s apartment. Marlon’s mother, a drug addict, was his biggest fan before she contracted HIV. After binging one night on drugs, he dreams of his mother, who scolds him to get his act together and get back to playing ball.

Or there’s “Jamal”, born to a mother of just 14 years old, raised by two grandparents who struggled with crack addiction through much of his childhood, before finally kicking the habit when he got admitted into an elite boarding school in Connecticut. Jamal’s grandfather passes away on Thanksgiving; in the midst of his sense of isolation, Jamal tries to take out his mourning on the court, only to go 0 for 15 from the floor.

Or there’s “Jermaine”, who, being raised in a drug-infested environment, lacks proper nourishment. And so often he runs across the street to steal from the corner store, until one day at the age of three gets hit by a car. That brings about the Department of Social Services’ attention to his home life, placing him in the care of his grandmother, who means everything to him in his early years.

“There was a point in the book where I had to take a walk,” Woodbine recalled. “I remember it very clearly, taking a walk past BU right by MLK Chapel, and I remember it was late at night and I was in tears. All the stories were going through my head, and every single person had an adverse child experience, so that was tough.”


What Woodbine is doing, taking his book and turning it into a play, is quite ambitious. And so he sought advice from his half-brother, Bokeem Woodbine, who’s in the entertainment business himself, blowing up after his unforgettable performance as silver-tongued Kansas City hitman Mike Milligan in this most recent season of the award-winning television series “Fargo” on FX.

The way Bokeem put it, when it comes to character development, art really does imitate life.

“He told me that basketball is theater, it’s drama. There is no difference, really, from being on the court and being on the stage,” Onaje Woodbine said. “You know you are embodying the narrative. You are expressing a story that other people can connect, so talking to him helped me understand how these guys on the court were almost writing a script.

“I started to recount how people were moving on the court as a living technique or script that was saying something about the neighborhood, and that was really profound, trying to decode what story was being told by these bodies.”

Reached by phone over the weekend, Bokeem Woodbine recalled a conversation years ago with Forest Whitaker, who told him he should “steal from the greats, you should absolutely break into their house and burglarize them” (metaphorically speaking, of course). Season two of “Fargo” had a uniquely-crafted cast crowded with stars such as Ted Danson, Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons and Brad Garrett -- and in a career-defining role as the philosophizing, Nixon-quoting, prog-rock-loving Mike Milligan, Bokeem stole just about every scene he was in.

“You have those moments where those characters or those roles that are presented to you spark and epiphany,” Bokeem Woodbine said by phone. “Speaking of Mike Milligan, I’ll use that as an example. It was an epiphany when I read the text. I literally could hear Mike Milligan talking. That doesn’t always happen. As crazy as it might sound, it’s the truth.”

While basketball wasn’t his thing, Bokeem had plenty of first-hand experience observing the culture as a youth in his native New York City, taking in games in Washington Square, Morningside Park, and the often romantically deified Rucker Park. He feels like there is a lot to relate to, and that his brother is “just getting warmed up”.

“I think this is definitely something he is going to continue to do for years,” Bokeem said. “The thing about writing, it’s like golf or music or even acting -- you can do it until you leave this world. I imagine this is just the first of many, many, many books that we will be blessed to receive from him. I have every aspiration to help him with his goal of bringing this to the big screen, because I absolutely think it translates to the screen, without a question.”

And what is it about the play that allows it to translate to the silver screen?

“The timeliness of it. It’s the perfect time for a story like this,” he says. “It’s just the perfect time and climate in the world, particularly America. This is what people want to see, and what some people need to see, so that is just two elements.”

He continued, “I’m bragging about him to people, because that’s not what he does. I’m the Flavor Flav to his Chuck D, just letting everyone know what time it is. I’m extremely proud – proud is an understatement.”


At one point in the play, one of the main characters, C.J., realizes he is a descendent of African women. That brings about a flashback, wherein the basket becomes a metaphor for the mind of God.

“There’s a line in traditional West Africa that says, ‘It’s a heavy load to carry death’s basket’, and what they are referring to is the ancestors,” Woodbine says. “There’s a form of good nature when you look into a basket and get messages from the ancestors, so the basket is a metaphor for memories.”

This metaphor, and many others, will be front and center at Orpah Winfrey’s all-girl Leadership Academy boarding school in South Africa, just south of Johannesburg. The power of performing a play with homage to his ancestry, in the land of his ancestors, is not lost on him.

“Oh my God. It’s like ... [only in] my wildest dreams could I imagine this could be possible,” he said.

Woodbine has a number of circumstances to thank for this opportunity. In 2013, after 40 years with Phillips Academy, former associate head of school Becky Sykes left to take over as president of the Oprah Winfrey Charitable Foundation, splitting her time between the United States and South Africa.

It goes without saying, this figures to be one of the more rewarding travels in a journey that, for Woodbine, has already had so many unique twists and turns.

“We found out from the head of schools in South Africa that many of the girls at the school are suffering from grief, because they have lost their primary caregivers, many of them,” he said. “So they wanted the play because they want to have a curriculum around grief, so we are going to have a conversation about their own personal experiences with grief, and what African-Americans are experiencing through the play with grief.”