When a young playwright is audacious enough to commit publicly to a nine-play cycle, the most appropriate response is encouragement. Mfoniso Udofia plans to follow four generations over 40 years of a single, Nigerian-American family, the Ufots. Two of the plays in the cycle, “Sojourners” and “Her Portmanteau,” are now playing in repertory at New York Theatre Workshop, with separate admissions and only one shared cast member. If these two plays are uneven, they offer the promise of an eventually enlightening and binge-worthy family saga that updates the story of Immigrant America.
In “Sojourners,” which takes place in Houston, Texas in 1978, Abasiama (Chinasa Ogbuagu) is a hard-working biology student and gas station attendant recently arrived from Nigeria. She is pregnant, but her charming, unreliable husband Ukpong (Hubert Point-Du Jour) disappears for days at a time, and neither works nor studies. He buys his wife gifts (with her money) that are really for him – most notably a stack of Motown records. He loves to dance, and he loves everything in his newly adopted country. By contrast, Abasiama just wants to finish school and go back to Nigeria. Over the course of the 150 minutes of the play, we see Abasiama meet two characters: Moxie (Lakisha Michelle May), a young, semi-literate African-American prostitute whom Abasiama helps get a legit job; and Disciple, a fellow Nigerian immigrant (Chinaza Uche.) The two comically start competing for Abasiama’s attention and affection. By the end, Abasiama makes a decision that will change the course of her life — and set the course for playwright Mfoniso Udofia’s cycle
As I observed when I saw this play produced by Playwrights Realm at Playwrights Horizons early last year, “Sojourners” is strongest when it offers a glimpse, sometimes humorously, into the immigrant characters’ two cultures: In one scene, Disciple visits Abasiama in the maternity ward, bringing flowers and a teddy bear. “…Stuffed animals,” he exclaims in his lilting accent. “They are American symbols of comfort. I should have brought good food or fine cloth. Doll? What for?”
The new production at New York Theatre Workshop, co-produced with Playwrights Realm, has the same fine cast and the same director, Ed Sylvanus Iskandar, whose past theatrical marathons These Seven Sicknesses and The Mysteries make him seem the ideal choice to helm this kind of project. If “Sojourners” also has the same overlong and unwieldy construction, there is noticeable improvement. It’s not any shorter, but its staging is smoother. Some of the more awkward moments seem to have been modified. The cumbersome set has been replaced by something cleaner and more dramatic. There is a turntable on stage, a black backdrop and a contraption overhanging the stage that looks like a cross between a two-pane window and the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey. It even emits light and features dancing abstract projections. As absurd as it may sound, the NYTW production of “Sojourners” could be a textbook example of the difference an improved design can make.
A portmanteau is a large trunk or suitcase, which is what Iniabasi – the baby born in “Sojourners” – is carrying when she arrives at JFK International Airport from Nigeria almost four decades later, at the beginning of “Her Portmanteau.”
But another definition of portmanteau is a word that combines two other words, such as brunch (combining breakfast and lunch) – and it is an inspired metaphor for the experience of an immigrant, who combines two worlds.
Iniabasi (Adepero Oduye), though born in the United States, grew up in Nigeria with her father Ukpong. She is expecting her mother Abasiama to show up and bring her to her big house in Massachusetts. But instead her younger half-sister, Adiagha, arrives (Chinasa Ogbuagu, a remarkable chameleon actor who is the only one to perform in both plays.) Adiagha takes Iniabasi to her one-bedroom apartment in Inwood. There has been a change of plans. Iniabasi is displeased. In Inwood, the two sisters, who met only once long ago, and their mother, Abiasama (now portrayed by Jenny Jules) confront their past and their ambivalent feelings towards one another. We piece together Abasiama’s life since “Sojourners” – she raised a second family, of whom Adiagha is her eldest — and what has happened to the characters from the first play. There are a few pleasing echoes that are easy to miss; we learn that Ukpong’s love of American dance music, which was largely an amusing irritant in “Sojourners,” has sparked in his (unseen) six-year-old grandchild a love and talent for dance. The title “Her Portmanteua” also holds yet more significance. Iniabasi’s single piece of luggage is the exact same one that Abasiama herself took to America. But what’s inside it is new, a modest surprise, and a touching one.
“Her Portmanteau,” taking place in a single day, is more streamlined and structurally coherent than “Sojourners,” while sharing some of that earlier play’s strengths. Again, there are knowing glimpses of the culture clash that is inherent in immigrant life. Iniabasi is aghast that Adiagha makes the Nigeria dish fufu using Jiffy pancake mix instead of yams. Some 15 to 20 minutes of the dialogue, spread throughout the 105 minutes of “Her Portmanteau,” is in the Nigerian language of Ibibio – the worst of it in telephone conversations. Other shows I’ve attended that are similarly performed in two or more languages have provided captions. That this production chooses to leave its English-speaking audience so long in the dark will prove a challenge for many, as will the African accents. (What does it say about a play when the playwright is in effect suggesting that such a sizeable chunk of the dialogue is not important?) But the challenge at least can be justified aesthetically and psychologically: It reproduces in the English-speaking audience something of the feeling of disorientation that new immigrants feel.
Sojourners and Her Portmanteau
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 for “Sojourners”: Chinasa Ogbuagu as Abasiama, Hubert Point Du Jour as Ukpong, Lakisha Michelle May as Moxie and Chinaza Uche as Disciple
Running time for “Sojourners”: Two and a half hours, including one intermission
Cast for “Her Portmanteau”: Jenny Jules as Abasiama Ufot, Adepero Oduye as Iniabasi Ekpeyoung, Chinasa Ogbuaga as Adiagha Ufot
Running time for “Her Portmanteau”: One hour and 45 minutes, no intermission.
Tickets: $73 per play.
“Sojourners” and “Her Portmanteau” are scheduled to run through June 4, 2017.