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Theatre in Review: runboyrun & In Old Age (New York Theatre Workshop)

Chiké Johnson and Patrice Johnson Chevannes. Photo: Joan Marcus.

When first seen at the Playwrights Realm, Sojourners, the first entry in Mfoniso Udofia's nine-part Ufot Cycle, about the travels and travails of a Nigerian-American family, came across as a poignant and carefully observed drama about the pains of exile. The pairing of it with another entry, Her Portmanteau, at New York Theatre Workshop in 2017, inspired cautious optimism, even if the latter was less distinctive, in addition to raising more questions than it answered about the characters. The current presentation, runboyrun & In Old Age, however is cause for alarm: The quality of the writing is showing worrying signs of deterioration, even as the parts on display fail to suggest a coherent overall picture.

The story so far: In Sojourners, we are introduced to Abasiama and Ukpong, a young couple living in Houston in the late 1970s. Both are in this country on student visas. Abasiama -- who is deeply, uncomfortably pregnant -- pursues her biology studies with iron discipline while Ukpong runs around, staying out all night and falling in love with American freedoms. The play traces the dissolution of their marriage, as Disciple, another Nigerian student - himself showing distinct signs of religious mania -- furiously woos Abasiama. Her Portmanteau jumps ahead several decades. Abasiama is now a middle-aged matron in Worcester, Massachusetts, married to Disciple -- who remains offstage, coping with chronic mental illness. The focus is on Abasiama's relationship with two very different daughters: Iniabasi, the elder -- who was returned to Nigeria to be raised by her grandparents and is pretty steamed about it -- and Adiaha, child of Disciple and something of a professional dilettante.

The current evening at NYTW begins with runboyrun, which, chronologically, falls just before Her Portmanteau. It details the home life of Abasiama and Disciple -- the latter, despite a gig teaching at a community college, is barely functioning -- interspersed with flashbacks that reveal the trauma incurred by him during the Biafran War of the late 1960s. It is paired with In Old Age, the eighth play in the cycle, in which Abasiama, now a widow, unexpectedly finds herself being romanced by Azell Abernathy, an American handyman with a troubled past of his own.

Udofia, who, obviously, is constructing the cycle out of order, is on record as saying that the plays can been in any arrangement. (Two others have been completed, but not yet seen here: The Grove focuses on Adiaha's personal struggles; Adia and Clora Snatch Joy features Adiaha, after Abasiama's death, connecting with Azell Abernathy's daughter.) But the new offerings onstage at NYTW don't really stand on their own, and continuity problems continue to appear.

Each of the current offerings consist of a single event around which the playwright erects a series of delaying tactics, in each case fending off a conclusion that can be seen coming from a mile away. In the former, Abasiama, now retired, has taken to her couch, burying herself under a pile of covers, watching religious television programs; Disciple, holed up in the basement, is haunted by memories of his lost mother and siblings in Africa. The action consists almost entirely of husband and wife squabbling, combined with scenes of past desolation and danger -- the terms of the Biafran crisis, a relatively obscure event to most audience members, I'll wager, aren't explored -- which drive the adult Disciple to ever-higher levels of hysteria. One waits impatiently for the revelation of the terrible event that left Disciple shattered -- which, to be sure, was enough to permanently ravage a young man's soul, but one foresees it far in advance. It doesn't help that the director, Loretta Greco, has allowed her two leads, Patrice Johnson Chevannes and Chiké Johnson, to play at such a furious pitch or that both of them employ accents so thick that listening to them becomes a chore. (Even more oddly, the play ends on a note of understanding and reconciliation that, apparently, doesn't last, since by the time of Her Portmanteau, Disciple is once again wrestling with his demons; once one knows this, the ending of runboyrun doesn't make much sense.)

In Old Age never solves the problem that afflicts so many two-handers: Once the characters are introduced, there is only one possible dramatic line; without it, there is no play. Again, Abasiama is on the couch; indeed, she is showing definite recluse tendencies -- an especially unfortunate development since her house is starting to collapse around her. (Whatever happened to Disciple isn't clear; it may be revealed in one of the four plays that separate this and Portmanteau.) In response, her frustrated children have engaged Azell Abernathy, an older fellow from the local Baptist church, to install new floors. Before Abasiama can throw him out, she learns that he has already been paid, so the job will be completed whether she likes it or not. There is a fair amount of cute-geezer sparring and one of those allegedly hilarious naughty-grandma bits in which Abasiama uses the word "fucking." Again, one marks time while the characters circle each other, drawing closer as one knows they must. (His attraction to her comes out of the blue, after many scenes of her carrying on rudely.) Of course, Azell Abernathy isn't entirely as sunny as he seems, and once he bares the truth about his own dark past, the meeting of hearts and minds can take place, right on cue. (in this way, the plays mirror each other, if not felicitously.) Awoye Timpo's broad direction is of a piece with Greco's, although Ron Canada can't help being ingratiating -- and often amusing -- as Azell Abernathy, who wields his courtly manners as a highly effective tool for dealing with difficult types like Abasiama.

There's nothing wrong with employing such formulaic concepts if one can revivify them with richly imagined characters and incisive details. But, based on what we've seen so far, this cycle is headed in the wrong direction. Abasiama, so intriguing when first introduced in Sojourners, has grown shriller and more two-dimensional in each subsequent play. The huge gaps in the narrative aren't helpful: It's hard to grasp how Abasiama -- in Sojourners, a figure of surprising depth, with a stunning capacity for endurance, who bravely befriends a troubled teen prostitute -- has devolved into a cranky, caricatured matriarch, snapping out insults and casting shadows of disapproval. Sadly, the more one learns about the Ufot family, the more one is likely to ask, Who are these people?

Other production aspects are uneven. Andrew Boyce's set design, a skeletal two-level interior surrounded by bare branches, tries valiantly to suggest both New England and an African landscape, but Oona Curley's lighting creates some interesting effects using a diffused band of illumination, which changes colors and performs chases, behind the upstage cyc. Karen Perry's costumes are solid, although it's hard to credit how Abasiama, so youthful and striking in runboyrun, has so quickly degenerated into an elderly scold in In Old Age. The former is set in 2012; the script of the latter is vague about its time frame, but it can't be that many years later. David Van Tieghem's original music is solid, but one can be driven to distraction in the second play by steady, intrusive barrage of knocking effects meant to suggest Disciple's unquiet spirit.

This is, of course, a partial report on a work that remains very much in progress. At this point, however, the Ufot Cycle is starting to resemble a collection of puzzle pieces, not all of which belong to the same picture. The further adventures of the Ufots await; perhaps clarity does, too.--David Barbour


(2 October 2019)

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