In “Sojourners,” a curious kind of love story among oddly carved characters, a man visits the hospital room of a woman he just recently met who’s given birth to the child of her absent husband. The visitor, named Disciple, offers the woman, Abasiama, flowers and a teddy bear. “…Stuffed animals. They are American symbols of comfort,” Disciple explains in heavily accented English to the new mother. “I should have brought good food or fine cloth. Doll? What for?”
The man and the woman are both Nigerian immigrants in Houston, Texas, in 1978, in a play by first generation Nigerian-American Mfoniso Udofia that is strongest when it offers us such glimpses into the characters’ two cultures, and their effort to juggle the two – adjusting here, resisting there.
Over the course of “Sojourners,” Abasiama (Chinasa Ogbuagu), hard-working biology student and gas station attendant, becomes the object of affection by the other characters. Ukpong (Hubert Point-Du Jour), her husband in a marriage arranged by their fathers back home, is charming but unreliable, neither working nor studying although he’s also enrolled as a student, disappearing for days at a time, buying gifts for Abasiama with the money she’s earned — gifts that are really for him, signs of his love for all things American, such as Motown records and American pickles. Disciple (Chinaza Uche), whom Abasiama meets when he comes to the gas station to fill a canister with gasoline, is, like her, studious and hardworking, and also (unlike her) intensely religious. His plan, like hers, is to return to Nigeria upon graduation. Then there is Moxie (Lakisha Michelle May), a young, barely literate African-American prostitute who comes to the gas station looking for a job, in order to get out of the life, and falls under Abasiama’s spell when she helps her fill out the job application. Moxie and Disciple quickly become protective of Abasiama, and, competing with one another for her affection, mistrust each other’s motives. If the play seems to be about ambiguous, ambivalent and sometimes unrequited love, that includes love of country.
“Sojourners,” as we are told in the program, is “the first of a nine-play cycle that follows a Nigerian family in America and Africa through 40 years and four generations.” Given the promise of such an ambitious and potentially exciting project, one makes allowances for some of the awkwardness of this first production, which would have been more effective with a clearer and more streamlined unfolding of the essential story, particularly its intriguing climax – which boils down to the choices that Abasiama makes. (This play would have benefited from being shorter. For example, we could have waited until a later play – if ever — to hear Disciple read from his thesis paper about Nigerian immigration.)
Ed Sylvanus Iskandar, whose direction of the wildly ambitious and satisfying theatrical marathons These Seven Sicknesses and The Mysteries make him seem the ideal choice for this new cycle, has assembled a four-member cast that does justice to the material, especially Obbuaga. So completely does she inhabit the soft-spoken, overwhelmed character she is portraying that I might have assumed the actress to be more or less reflecting her own personality, had I not seen her in the role of a sophisticated vixen in The Qualms. She is notably good in letting us feel the pain of her pregnancy throughout Act I.
There is a rotating set in “Sojourners” that brings us from Abasiama’s home to Disciple’s home to the gas station to the hospital and back again. Like the play itself, it has something of an unwieldy construction, at times annoying, but it drives home the feel of a world in which everything is both dislocating and connected.
Click on any photograph by Chasi Annexy to see it enlarged
Playwrights Realm at Playwrights Horizons
Written by Mfoniso Udofia; Directed by Ed Sylvanus Iskandar
Scenic design by Jason Sherwood, costume design by Loren Shaw, lighting design by Jiyoung Chang, sound design by Jeremy S. Bloom
Cast: Chinasa Ogbuagu as Abasiama, Hubert Point Du Jour as Ukpong, Lakisha Michelle May as Moxie and Chinaza Uche as Disciple
Running time: 2 and a half hours, including one intermission.
Tickets: $15 to $35
Sojourners is scheduled to run through February 13, 2016