Entertainment » Theatre

Sojourners and Her Portmanteau

by Wickham Boyle
EDGE Media Network Contributor
Tuesday May 16, 2017
Jenny Jules and Chinasa Ogbuagu
Jenny Jules and Chinasa Ogbuagu  

New York Theater Workshop is presenting a two-part theatrical event written by a first-generation Nigerian-American writer, Mfoniso Udofia. "Sojourners" and "Her Portmanteau," are part of the "Ufot Cycle" a proposed nine-play saga following the perambulations, trials, triumphs, and tribulations of a Nigerian matriarch and her family.

Abasiama Ufot is the mother in this cycle, and she is well embodied by Jenny Jules, from "The Crucible," like a wraith thin, washed-out vision of her former, vibrant self in "Her Portmanteau." This play takes place 30 years after the first work, "Sojourners" and in some of the marathon cycles, the plays are offered out of chronological sequence, but each can be viewed on its own merits for the stories told.

"Her Portmanteau" opens on the stark stage with a raked overhead projection ceiling and an interior revolve. The scenic design by Jason Sherwood, costumes by Loren Shaw and lights and videos by Jiyoun Chang all work well to enforce the narrative.

In the opening, the revolve shuttles luggage around and around denoting the waiting area of any modern airport. Luggage arrives and is plucked off showing the passage of time and a woman appears scanning both the bags and the horizon for, as we guess, her ride, her family.

This is Iniabasi Ekpeyoung played with a Nigerian edginess By Adepero Oduye. This new arrival to America is obviously angry at being unmet, and unattended. We watch her pace the stage until a payphone revolves into view. Then a prolonged phone call ensues, either to a party speaking a native language (Ibo, Hausa, Yoruba?) in Africa or NYC.

I spent a good chunk of time in West Africa, and it was still too much time with an unknown language during this play. Many conversations unfolded, often for long stretches in a native tongue.

As the play unfolds, we learn that in "Sojourners" a young pregnant Abasiama was trapped in a traditional arranged marriage and became drawn by the American culture of the 1970s. She leaves her Nigerian family, husband and young daughter and decamps to American to pursue her studies and a piece of the counter culture. While in America, Abasiama remarries and has another daughter, Adiagha Ufot, played lightly, with a hapless American ease by Chinasa Ogbuagu.

We rejoin Abasiama and both of her daughters decades later when her decision erupts and is questioned in "Her Portmanteau." While Abasiama is reunited with her daughters in NYC, her husbands remain home; one in Lagos, the other in Massachusetts.

Nigerian traditions bestow much on who is valued and honored as the eldest daughter. Since in this family there are in fact two first-born daughters, these traditions clash with the realities of American life. Family is always complex, and it is paramount that diverse cultures be given light on the stage, in films, fine art, and music. Here Abasiama confronts a complicated family legacy and attempts to make peace, a mother's work in every culture.

My misgivings stem not from the good story, but from the prolonged telling. The nearly two hours is stuffed full of seemingly endless business: long phone calls that a majority of the audience can't understand, busy work of moving pillows, fluffing, sorting, folding cloths, hanging up winter coats, finding sweaters, serving food, clearing dishes, making tea, clearing tea, unpacking and sorting through photographs, often with no dialogue.

Perhaps this was intended to create a kind of suspense, but the reveal that the girls were sisters was told early on and although their discomfort was understandable, the running time of this work and the busy time on the stage was not understood.

Usually, Ed Sylvanus Iskander is an inventive director who uses time and space to his advantage, but in this work, it seemed that time stood still and the story did not warrant the time it took to be told.

"Her Portmanteau" runs through June 4 at New York Theatre Workshop, in Association with The Playwrights Realm, 79 E 4th St, New York, NY 10003. For information or tickets, call 212-780-9037 or visit https://www.nytw.org/show/sojourners-her-portmanteau/


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