Though jagged in structure, this romantic drama about Nigerian college students in Houston in 1978, is quite moving due to its wonderful performances.
Set in Houston, Texas, in 1978, it tells the story of a couple in their mid-20’s attending college who were wed through an arranged marriage in Nigeria. The very pregnant Abasiama is pragmatic, studious and works at a gas station convenience store. Ukpong is a charming ne’er-do-well mainly interested in listening to pop records, drinking beer and enjoying living in the U.S. His defense is “My life has never been my own.”
Remember? “Finefine?” Recall when I first came to your compound and you saw me. Under your breath you muttered, “finefine.” …My turn to have a woman to make me that strong kind of man! The very second after I heard, I celebrated in the halls of that hellish Texas Southern.
Hanging around the convenience store is Moxie, a fiery young prostitute who wants to change her life by getting a job there. Also lurking through the play is Disciple, a mystical young Nigerian man, who after a chance meeting with Abasiama becomes obsessed with her.
Ms. Udofia’s dialogue is richly expressive and she renders the four characters with depth and detail. The relationships between the characters are fully explored and their interactions where they voice their hopes and desires are often poignant. This is most particularly felt in the growing camaraderie between Abasiama and Moxie.
You need to focus and do what you gotta do so you ain’t standing out in the middle of a Texas gas station asking to get killed. This ain’t Africa girl. You gotta – This be the free jungle!! Better than the jungle jungle.
“The magical energy of the piece” is how Udofia describes her view of the play. It is structured as a series of short scenes in varying locales that range from the couple’s house, the convenience store, a hospital, and Disciple’s apartment, making the action choppy. The plotting is weakened by repetitive scenes that drag. There is also the cryptic distraction of having Disciple visually appearing well in advance of his actually becoming part of the narrative. Despite these flaws, the play by its conclusion is a compelling experience.
Abasiama is a shy foreign wife who through circumstances is transformed into a confident woman. Chinasa Ogbuagu beautifully displays the character’s evolution with her excellent performance.
Lakisha Michelle May as Moxie hilariously embraces the stereotype of the loud and contentious streetwalker but gradually offers a touching and modulated portrait of aspiration against hardship.
As the roguish Ukpong, Hubert Point-Du Jour delightfully portrays this spoiled overgrown boy with his animated presence and lyrical voice.
Chinaza Uche charismatically performs the difficult role of Disciple. Mr. Uche admirably brings reality to this symbolic intruder with his sly and hyperbolic manner that never veers into becoming a cartoon.
Director Ed Sylvanus Iskandar realizes the author’s worthy but rambling vision. Mr. Iskandar has achieved intense performances from the cast and physically staged the numerous scenes adeptly and with connectivity.
Jason Sherwood’s accomplished set design is a rectangular revolving setup, wheeled by stagehands, that represent the different locations. It gets wheeled a lot because of the play’s format. Each setting is authentically depicted with appropriate touches such as African furnishings and the faded signs at the Fiesta gas station’s convenience store.
The varying states of reality, places and moods are very effectively conveyed by Jiyoun Chang’s lighting design. Loren Shaw’s costume design realistically visualizes the characters with flair, especially the two women. Heard through out the play are a well-chosen selection of music popular at the time including Dolly Parton that are all evocatively configured by Jeremy S. Bloom’s expert sound design.
This production is presented by the company Playwrights Realm. Their mission is “supporting early career playwrights along the journey of playwriting, helping them to hone their craft, fully realize their vision, and build meaningful artistic careers.” Sojourners strongly if imperfectly fulfills that goal.
Sojourners (through February 13, 2016)
Peter Jay Sharp Theater at Playwrights Horizons, 416 West 42nd Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-279-4200 or visit http://www.playwrightsrealm.org
Running time: two hours and 25 minutes including one intermission
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