Currently being staged in repertory by New York Theater Workshop in association with The Playwrights Realm (which produced Sojourners in 2016 with the same cast), both directed by Ed Sylvanus Iskandar, the two plays set 36 years apart are problematic: Sojourners is an overwritten failure, while Her Portmanteau is very possibly a masterpiece. However, you have the choice of seeing them in chronological order, separately or in the order that works for you.
Expect great things from Udofia in the future. Both plays demonstrate that she writes full-bodied, three-dimensional characters, while Her Portmanteau reveals that she can also write a play from the heart whose emotions will pull you in and stay with you long after the final curtain. Also keep your eye on Chinasa Ogbuagu: playing two different women 36 years apart she is totally unrecognizable, you have to read the program to discover that it is the same actress, an extraordinary feat.
After an arranged marriage, Abasiama (neé Bromley) Ekpeyoung has come to Houston, Texas, to attend college along with her charming but idle husband Ukpong, he to study economics, she to study biology. However, although they have fallen in love, the now pregnant Ama (as she is called) finds that her husband has been seduced by American music, freedom and women, and life for her begins to go downhill. While Ukpong squanders his allowance sent from Nigeria, she has to work the night shift at a Fiesta gas station in order to make ends meet, all the time diligently studying her curriculum.
There she meets streetwalker Moxie Willis, an American black woman, who has never known her possibilities in life, and Disciple Ufot, a volatile but intellectual Nigerian countryman studying Communications at the same university. Moxie and Disciple become close friends and are there for her when her baby girl is born and Ukpong as usual can’t be found. Ultimately, Ama must make a kind of “Sophie’s choice” decision at the end of the play when Ukpong is ordered to return to Nigeria as his student visa has run out.
While the characters and situations are utterly believable, the play is poorly structured: scenes repeat again and again almost exactly as before. The characters are the same at the end as they were when we met them, with little or no catharsis. To a great extent, at two hours and thirty minutes, the play is vastly overwritten. It doesn’t help that much of the dialogue is in the Nigerian language of Ibibio and untranslated for the audience, most of whom are unlikely to know it.
Even if the play disappoints, the acting is of a high caliber. Ogbuagu’s Abasiama is an indomitable spirit with a clear sense of herself who we will meet in the other plays. Hubert Point-Du Jour is charmingly seductive as Ukpong, the unreliable husband whose head has been turned by American pop culture. As Moxie, the teenage streetwalker, Lakisha Michelle May is also indomitable in spirit, a woman who knows what she wants but does not have the education to know how to get it. Her failure to understand the cultured Nigerian makes for a great deal of humor. Chinaza Uche is charmingly intense as Disciple Ufot, a man of integrity and erudition.
The unit set by Jason Sherwood (used for both plays) which makes use of a revolving stage in this play (which turns a few times too many) has been poorly lit by Jiyoun Chang so that the false ceiling’s neon lights are in the audience’s eyes much of the time. However, none of these production problems are in evidence in the later play using the same elements.
Her Portmanteau is set 36 years later. Ama’s oldest daughter, Iniabasi Ekpeyoung has grown up in Nigeria. In January 2014, feeling guilty about leaving her there, Ama invites her to visit her American family outside of Boston. But Ama’s second husband Disciple is not happy with this decision. To Iniabasi’s confusion she is rerouted to New York City where instead of her mother she is picked up at the airport by a stranger, her half-sister Adiagha (translation, eldest), and taken to her apartment in Inwood, in Upper Manhattan. Ini is angry about many things, not only having had to leave her six-year-old son back in Nigeria. She also doesn’t understand why she is not meeting her other half-siblings in the big house in Massachusetts as previously promised.
Ama, on the other hand, is guilty about many things: that she left her daughter in Nigeria for so long, and that she doesn’t know her grandson, but has also taken a vow not to speak badly about Iniabasi’s father, the charming but idle Ukpong. Adiagha is caught in the middle. Not happy about sharing her tiny apartment with Iniabasi, she also feels that her mother has not been honest with her or her sister. She knows nothing about her nephew and thinks her sister is owed an explanation about the change from Boston.
Suffering from jet lag and cultural shock, Ini is both embittered and lost, not only since her mother hasn’t told her the whole story, but also that Adiagha does not remember her, the older sister. Where will there be room for her six year old son? All have their individual memories which do not always overlap. When Ama recognizes Ini’s suitcase (filled with photographs) as the very one she came to America with in 1978, guilt, blame, and loss overwhelm the three women. The ultimate reconciliation is an emotional roller coaster.
In this basically one set play (aside from the opening scene in the airport), the playwright cuts very deep. Not only does she show that there is more than one side to every story, but that family members can have long held misconceptions. As the women’s emotions spill over in various ways, the play becomes more and more involving and all-encompassing. As these family members, the three actresses are completely their own persons and create indelible characters. As the older Abasiama now in her sixties, Jenny Jules still has the same effervescence as her younger counterpart but there is a wisdom and a tranquility that she has acquired with age. Adepero Oduye beautifully delineates the bereft Iniabasi’s emotional upheaval at the unexpected world she finds herself in and at meeting the relatives she does not know.
As the younger daughter, Ogbuagu is so totally different from her role in Sojourners, both physically and vocally, that it is difficult to realize that it is the same actress, particularly seeing both plays back to back on the same day. Her Adiagha is a well-adjusted and contented American woman, financially attempting to keep her head above water, here trying to make the best of a bad situation. Her inability to understand her older sister is as beautifully defined as Oduye’s portrait of culture shock. Ogbuagu’s versatility is remarkable and she creates a completely realized portrait in each play.
Much of the credit must go to Iskandar for the brilliant portrayals and the superbly modulated rhythm of this play. Sherwood’s living room setting is perfect for the action, and Chang’s soft lighting offers none of the problems of Sojourners. Loren Shaw’s costumes for both plays instantly bring the characters to life, both the men and the women. The success of Dawn-Elin Fraser’s dialect and text coaching in the Ibibio accent and dialect is evident from Ogbuagu’s two entirely different performances first as a Nigerian woman in America, and then as an American woman born into a Nigerian-American family.
As a portrait of a Nigerian–American family, Mfoniso Udofia’s Sojourners and Her Portmanteau offer fascinating insights into a group and a culture not generally seen on the American stage. Directed by Ed Sylvanus Iskandar, and with a cast headed by the truly remarkable Chinasa Ogbuagu, these plays are the beginning of a major cycle in American drama. While Sojourners plays like an early script, Her Portmanteau is a mature, moving accomplished work. While the former play subtitled “The Origin Story” is a minor work, you may want to see both in order to be in on the ground floor of this multigenerational family saga.
Sojourners & Her Portmanteau (in repertory through June 11, 2017)
New York Theater Workshop, 79 E. 4th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-279-4200 or visit http://www.nytw.org
Running times: Sojourners – two hours and 30 minutes with one intermission
Her Portmanteau – one hour and 45 minutes without an intermission