By Tulis McCall
The most compelling element of this double header is the concept. Mfoniso Udofia is telling the story of a slice of the Nigerian Diaspora as it unfolded, beginning with the late 1970’s. This is a rich territory to mine because it is pretty much untouched. Nigerians left home to glean educational riches elsewhere with the plan that they would return. Mfoniso Udofia is a first generation Nigerian-American, and this story is personal. The core is unique, however, because this story does not follow a prescribed path.
The two plays Sojourners and Her Portmanteau take place in unlikely places. The story begins with Abasiama and Ukpong Ekpeyong (Chinasa Ogbuagu and Hubert Point-Du Jour reprising their roles from the 2016 Playwrights Realm production) are recent arrivals to Houston where they are enrolled at Texas Southern. Ukpong was enrolled earlier when he got the news that his father had found a bride for him. After marrying Abasiama they both returned to Texas. As the play begins they are days away from the arrival of their first child. Abasiama is the rock of this relationship. She studies her biology diligently. She has a part time job at a gas station/food mart. She cares for the home, herself and her husband. Ukpong – well that is a different story. As far as we can tell he drinks, parties and talks big. He is a restless man who would prefer to be a boy with no responsibilities. If he had his druthers he would return home and let everyone take care of him. While he loves Abasiama, she reminds him of his responsibility. And that is a subject from which he will flee in a nanno-second.
During one of his days-long flights Abasiama gives birth. By this time she has picked up two new friends who are more or less orphans of their own making. Moxie (Lakisha Michelle May) is a street walker who wants a little bit of normal in her life. Disciple Ufot (Chinaza Uche) is another Nigerian student lost in the maze of his own thought process and his belief in the Divine. These actors are also reprising their roles from the 2016 production.
Once Abasiama gives birth these three adults engage in a fierce combat for the right to her heart and soul. The outcome is surprising and, frankly, not believable as written.
Her Portmanteau takes place 36 years later. The infant we met in Sojourners is now grown with a boy of her own. Iniabasi (Adpero Oduye) has been in invited to the United States to live, we think, with her mother Abasiama (Jenny Jones), the pregnant mother from Sojourners who deserted her and her stepfather Disciple. The couple lives in Massachusetts and it is to that house that Iniabasi intends to travel. Plans, however, have a way of going wrong. It seems that Disciple has slipped the bonds of sanity, and it has been determined that he would not be a good host. Therefore Iniabasi’s half sister Adiagha (Chinasa Oguagu) has changed her sister’s ticket – apparently without her knowledge (is that possible?) and the trip to Massachusetts has ended in New York. Here Iniabasi is greeted by her half-sister, who she has not seen in 22 years. They return to Adiagha’s tiny apartment where they are joined by their mother Abasiama who is now 60 years old.
The ensuing reunion is a classic struggle between mothers and daughters with accusations of abandonment, selfishness and cruelty flung around as if it were a food fight. Privacy is just a word. Innocence is a concept. Love is not to be trusted. The concluding action of this story lacks credulity just as the sister play did. Who forgives a mother who goes through her daughter’s luggage the second she is left alone with – wait for it – her portmanteau? No one I know.
I am not certain you were able to follow all of this – because it took a lot of discussing between me and my theatre companion. The facts of this story are often illogical as well as not written clearly This work has been in development for some time, and the only explanation I can come up with is that Mr. Iskandar and Ms. Udofia are too close to the material. And apparently outside eyes did not spot the inconsistencies. The cast does what it can, but they are not able to keep this production afloat. I thought the same thing when I saw Sojourners in 2016. Nothing has changed, and I understand that there are 7 more plays in the pipeline.
The intent of this story is spectacular and clear as a bell. As it stands now, the execution does not live up to it.
The story may be true, but the telling does not ring so.
NB: My theatre companion and I saw this duo on the same weekend day – which was managed beautifully by New York Theatre Workshop. There is even the offer of a beautiful mid-day meal provided by Eat Offbeat, a company that delivers authentic, off-the-beaten path cuisines made by refugees resettled in New York City. It was the highlight of the day.
SOJOURNERS and HER PORTMANTEAU by Mfoniso Udofia; Directed by Ed Sylvanus Iskander
WITH SOJOURNERS: Lakisha Michelle May (Everybody) as Moxie Wilis, Chinasa Ogbuagu (The Qualms) as Abasiama Ekpeyoung, Hubert Point-Du Jour (Every Angel is Brutal) as Ukpong Ekpeyoung, and Chinaza Uche (Dolphins and Sharks) as Disciple Ufot.
HER PORTMANTEAU:Jenny Jules (The Crucible) as Abasiama Ufot, Adepero Oduye (The Trip to Bountiful) as Iniabasi Ekpeyoung, and Chinasa Ogbuaga as Adiagha Ufot.
Scenic design by Jason Sherwood, costume design by Loren Shaw, lighting and video design by Jiyoun Chang, and sound design by Jeremy S. Bloom. Dawn-Elin Fraser and Janice Paran dramaturgs.
Produced in association with The Playwrights Realm (Katherine Kovner, Artistic Director Roberta Pereira, Producing Director) who premiered SOJOURNERS last winter in a limited engagement world premiere production. Through June 11. Tickets