New York Theatre Workshop continues its commitment to staging the plays of Mfoniso Udofia’s The Ufot Cycle, a nine-play series about two Nigerian immigrants to the United States. The NYTW presentations began in 2017 with Sojourners, the first play, about Abasiama (affectionally called Ama) Ekpeyong’s arrival in Houston, Texas, in 1978 in an arranged marriage and her meeting with new friend Disciple Ufot. This was performed in repertory with Her Portmanteau which took place 36 years later and concerned three of Ama’s daughters, two by her second husband Disciple, and one by her first husband who had gone back to Nigeria with him and was coming to the states for her first visit since then.
The latest presentations (performed on the same bill) are runboyrun (play #3) in which Ama and Disciple Ufot have now been married 30 years and their children have all moved out from their Worcester, Massachusetts, home, and In Old Age (play #8) which takes place years later when the elderly Ama now a widow, still in the old house in Worcester, has retired from the world but an elder carpenter hired by her daughter makes a concerted effort to get her out of her depression.
Despite the fine writing and acting, these two plays do not stand alone: we are given no backstory to understand the context for these relationships in the longer saga; both plays dealing with a character’s depression, they are too similar in the theme of being haunted by the past; and thirdly, as they are basically two-character plays, both are too long for the limited story and plot lines they contain. Unlike the first two plays, these use two different directors (Loretta Greco for runboyrun, and Awoye Timpo for In Old Age), ironically making them seem quite similar in style.
In runboyrun, it is January 10, 2012, and Disciple is having a very bad day. He has just returned home from an academic hearing at the community college he has taught at for the past year, his first job in a decade, and found it a humiliating experience. Although we don’t at first notice it, he is haunted by the events of the same day back in 1968 when he was twelve and on the run from the Biafran Civil War with his mother, sister and blind brother. However, his wife Abasiama, now retired from her job as a scientific researcher, is lying under a pile of blankets on the sofa, freezing as they have little money for fuel. It is when she demands a divorce that she finally pushes Disciple over the edge.
As we discover, Disciple has been living this day over and over for many years, but today is the first time that Ama pries out of him the whole story and begins to understand his feelings of guilt. We witness these flashbacks reenacted in his kitchen by Karl Green as the Boy (Disciple as a mute child), Zenzi Williams as his fierce mother, Adrianna Mitchell as his compassionate sister, and Adesola Osakalumi as his injured brother.
While Chiké Johnson’s Disciple having yet another meltdown, and Patrice Johnson Chevannes as Abasiama having reached her limit with her unstable husband are truly believable and moving as the long-married couple, the play seems to circle back on itself over and over. This may be intended to telegraph that this has been a periodic occurrence in their lives but as this play gives no further information about them or their marriage, we are not invested in their plight. Chevannes’ thick Ibibio accent (the language of Nigeria) makes it difficult to understand all of her complaints. How the flashbacks work their way into the story is not immediately revealed so two plays seem to be taking place on the stage at once. While Andrew Boyce’s skeletal setting is serviceable, it offers no atmosphere nor does it look much like the rooms described in the script. The direction by Loretta Greco does not solve all of the play’s problems. runboyrun might be much more successful if paired with an earlier play in the Ufot Cycle so that we are invested in their marriage.
Set years later in the same house in Worcester, In Old Age reveals Ama now an elderly widow in the crumbling domicile in which she lives on her own, her children visiting as rarely as they did when their father was still alive. There is a knock at the door and 70-year-old Azell Abernathy, a vivacious carpenter, wakes Ama up from her under her pile of quilts on the sofa bed in the living room of the freezing house. He has been hired by her daughter Adiagha to redo all of the floors before they cause further problems. What Adiagha and Azell do not know is that the house is haunted by the late Disciple’s spirit and that the knocking Ama hears at various intensities are his messages to her of his displeasure from the other side. She wants to be left in peace to live out her remaining and seemingly useless days.
However, Ama has been living as a recluse, waiting to die, and does not want her existence disturbed by this charming, charismatic man who she insists is years younger than she. Unfortunately for her, Adiagha has paid him in advance and told him to not listen to her mother’s complaints. The play follows their thorny, troubled relationship as Ama fights him every inch of the way as he makes the necessary changes over the course of a week. It takes him a while to understand her beliefs and current lifestyle, for example, her insisting he take off his boots before coming into her house in order to not track up the floors. Eventually, they reach a sort of truce while the ghost of Disciple, a vivid presence, makes his feelings audibly known only to Ama.
Although this ought to play like a comedy, under Awoye Timpo’s direction the play gets few if any laughs. The exasperated Ama from runboyrun has become a crotchety old harridan. In Chavannes’ performance the feisty, fearless and indomitable Abasiama from the earlier plays is nowhere in evidence. Just as in runboyrun, there is no backstory so that we do not know how Ama came to be in this wretched state. Ron Canada is delightful as the elderly carpenter who tries every trick in his quiver to get through to her and to some extent he saves the play from seeming like a continued repetition of the opening scene. However, the play is still too long for its premise and content: each day the couple argue, converse, Ama talks to the ghost of Disciple, Azell does his work and he leaves.
The most impressive part of the production is the elaborate sound design by David van Tieghem which makes the house a character in the play and brings Disciple alive, though unseen. This is aided by Oona Curley’s lighting which also adds atmosphere to the old dark house. Boyce’s set design is less suitable here as most of the furniture described in the script is not in evidence so that Azell only has the sofa and the television set to deal with in his renovations. Nor do we see the garden vista out the front window which Azell is entranced with when Ama finally opens her curtains. Karen Perry’s costumes are put to good use as Ama begins to take an interest in her appearance and changes to more and more elaborate outfits as the days go by. Aside from Chevannes’ acting, the aging of Ama is partly accomplished by J. Jared Janas’ excellent hair, wig and makeup design.
Mfoniso Udofia’s nine-play Ufot Cycle which may well be the first American plays about the Nigerian diaspora in the United States is a worthy project. When completed, it will eventually detail four generations in this family saga. Unfortunately, runboyrun and In Old Age, the two now on display at New York Theatre Workshop, do not stand alone apart from the earlier plays and would be better served by being paired with other parts of the cycle. Possibly they need to be seen in repertory with their companion plays.
runboyrun & In Old Age (through October 13, 2019)
New York Theatre Workshop, 83 E. 4th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-460-5475 or visit http://www.nytw.org
Running time: three hours and 20 minutes with one intermission