By Tulis McCall
Sojourners is a valuable story. We overlook those we cannot “see”. Like the person at the gas station who gives us our gas receipt. The subway maintenance person in the orange vest who wears gloves and carries a broom and dustpan. The garbage collectors. And – ah yes – the usher at the theatre who just handed you your tickets and asked that you turn off your phone. Mfoniso Udofia has focused her attention on these people.
Abasiama (Chinasa Ogbuagu) is a Nigerian woman living in Houston. it iso 1978. She studies biology, works as an attendant at a gas station and carries her first born. And,oh yeah, she worries about her husband, Ukpong (Hubert Point Du Jour) who, for all intents and purposes is a big bag of lame. Their marriage was arranged back in Nigeria, and they have traveled here together to get their education. After that they play to return to Nigeria. Anyway, that is what Abasiama intends. Ukpong has other ideas. He wants to stay here, fantasize about what might be and, in general, just goof off. He disappears for days at a time and returns with stories of what he saw out there. He has no job, and is supposed to be a student.
We fast forward to the moment when Abasiama meets Moxie (Lakisha Michelle May), a hooker with a heart of gold (of course) who is in need of help. The johns are getting tough and the job is getting dangerous. Abasiama offers Moxie shelter from the storm. The fourth person in the quartet is Disciple (Chinaza Uche) who appears to spend all his time writing a doctoral thesis: “Nigerian Immigration: Reconceptualizing a Country.” This he writes in English but brainstorms in Ibibio, which is the same language that Abasiama and her husband speak.
Paths cross when Abasiama goes into labor at the gas station with only Moxie on hand. Disciple appears carrying a gas can in hand as he has just conveniently run out. Initially rebuffed by Moxie, he makes himself available when Abasiama nearly collapses. From then on, he becomes a staple in her life. This leads to a conflict with Moxie who has come to deeply love and value Abasiama. With the arrival of her daughter Abasiama now has four people who want her. Three adults and a baby.
While Udofia’s intention is clear, her plot here is off track. The math in this play does not add up, and it starts with the first scene. What we see is an earnest, hard working woman who is saddled with a goof-off. And the question is why? Udofia never answers this question, and as a result this play suffers.
Udofia may be an excellent story-teller, but her playwriting is wanting. Normally I am a fan of both Playwrights Realm and this director Ed Sylvanus Iskandar. In this case I was disappointed in both. I was dumbfounded that this particular play was chosen for production. Secondly there Iskander’s direction, normally inventive and out of the box, appeared to be including the design of the set which was cumbersome and confining.
Sojourners is over written, slow-paced, and lacks clear plot points. These characters make the same points over and over again. There is no growth or development. Each person ends up pretty much the way we met them, or makes a decision that has no foundation. In particular, the conclusion of the play is so unbelievable that it made me think I had fallen asleep and missed a significant plot point. Upon reading the script I see I there was no plot point to miss.
Odofia has real stories to tell, and the assistance of a dramaturge might be exactly what she needs in order to find the clarity that her tales deserve.
Sojourners Written by Mfoniso Udofia; Directed by Ed Sylvanus Iskandar
Cast Chinasa Ogbuagu as Abasiama, Hubert Point Du Jour as Ukpong, Lakisha Michelle May as Moxie and Chinaza Uche as Disciple
“Sojourners” runs through Feb. 13 at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater, 416 West 42nd Street, Manhattan; 212-279-4200, playwrightsrealm.org. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes.