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Theatre in Review: Sojourners (The Playwrights Realm/Peter Jay Sharp Theater)

Chinasa Ogbuagu. Photo: Chasi Annexy

It's always a pleasure to come across a playwright with a fresh set of characters and a compelling tale to tell; Mfoniso Udofia pulls together four people -- three of them Nigerian immigrants -- in Houston circa 1978 for a funny-sad drama about various kinds of displacement: geographical, cultural, and spiritual. Part of the pleasure of watching Sojourners lies in trying to figure out where the narrative is going; the good news is Udofia confidently guides them all to a denouement that is as surprising as it is satisfying.

Abasiama (also known as Ama) and Ukpong are married college students, part of a wave of Nigerians who came to the United States after 1960 in search of educations that would help them improve themselves and their country. Both are studying biology -- well, Ama is, even though she is nine months pregnant and experiencing alarming pains that are exacerbated by having to stand during her all-night shift at a gas station. The actress Chinasa Ogbuagu persuasively physicalizes Ama's discomfort, establishing her quickly as a figure of enormous tenacity. In contrast, Ukpong breezes in, dressed in the grooviest of threads -- embroidered bell-bottom jeans and a patchwork leather jacket of many colors --an outfit that is only one of the costume designer Loren Shaw's smart choices. Ukpong immediately launches into an ecstatic aria about a "rally" that he attended: "Whites. Blacks. Hispanics. Asians. Women. Poor. Rich. Who could have thought all these sorts of people jam-packed into one room? And we rallied about everything. Oh. Politics? Economy? Love? No subject taboos! And then this speaker! Sampson. This man got up there, round midnight, to light the altar on fire on how we have to live and love and that that is the sole purpose of life. It blew my mind." This long, vividly detailed speech is given exactly the lyric reading it needs by the gifted Hubert Point-Du Jour, who makes Ukpong enormously likeable, despite his glaring deficiencies as a husband.

It's fair to say that Ukpong's words wouldn't be quite so wasted on Ama if he were to pull his weight in the income department, if he showed any evidence of studying for his classes, or if he didn't spend all their money on beer, clothes, and soul music recordings. Their marriage is the product of an arrangement between their two families, and there are hints that they were once much happier, but things are coming perilously unstuck in America. Ukpong, who clearly smarts from a father's withheld love, is dazzled by the freedoms offered by Western culture, while Ama only wants to do well in school and return home, degree in hand, as soon as possible. ("If we stay? We'll be like the trash the country puts to the side," she warns him.) Not long before she goes into labor, however, Ama makes a devastating discovery -- not to be revealed here -- about Ukpong; by then, he has gone off without explanation, and not for the first time.

However, by this point, Ama has two others attending to her and vying for her attention: Moxie, a barely literate prostitute who keeps turning up at the gas station looking for a job, and Disciple, another Nigerian student, who is haunted by God, the memory of his late sister, and the corrosive loneliness of his life in America. Both Moxie and Disciple see their futures with Ama, who, depleted by a difficult birth, is alarmed by the intensity of their claims. Meanwhile, floating in the background is her unresolved status with Ukpong; as Ama notes, "There's no word, where I'm from, for what this is."

Udofia sorts out this situation with considerable insight and compassion, giving us four flawed, muddled, yet immensely sympathetic characters, each of whom feels marginalized, yet is groping, however awkwardly, for a more satisfying life. Even as Ukpong tries to school Ama in Western ways, he is capable of treating her with great tenderness, for example, when he all but seduces her into eating a pickle, an exotic and, to her, unappealing food. Nevertheless, he is remarkably blind to her suffering, what he calls "this dour, broken-bird thing," which, bafflingly to him, is sucking the joy from their marriage. Moxie comes and goes furiously, but she sees in Ama a friend who can help her out of the gutter, and for the first time starts making plans for her future. And while Disciple is clearly struggling in America -- we see him repeatedly trying to get past the first sentence of his doctoral dissertation -- and his fierce religiosity is off-putting to Ama, he makes an argument that she finds hard to refute: "Who on this earth knows you but your own?"

The director, Ed Sylvanus Iskandar, is best known for staging lengthy downtown epics like These Seven Sicknesses and The Mysteries; here he uncorks another side of his talent, drawing out four beautifully detailed, naturalistic performances. Ogbuagu, who made an impression as a leggy, politically minded swinger in The Qualms earlier in the season, is virtually unrecognizable as Ama; any actress who can achieve such transformations is worth keeping a close eye on. Here, she vividly draws Ama's psychological and physical exhaustion, nevertheless showing how she retains an independence of mind that allows her to make a drastic choice when it comes time to settle things with Ukpong. Point-Du Jour makes Ukpong into a persuasive manchild, the kind of charmer who wins you over even when you know you can't trust him for a minute. We see how American music and manners have invaded his soul, opening him to possibilities that he has never before imagined. Lakisha Michelle May's Moxie radiates sass and vulnerability in equal measure, whether she is struggling to spell Massachusetts (her home state) on a job application, opening her coat to reveal the bruises left on her midriff, or telling Disciple in no uncertain terms to back off from Ama. Uche makes the agony of Disciple's American exile palpable; begging Ama for details of her life in Nigeria, he is overtaken by a kind of ecstasy. "Stories of home keep us tethered here," he says. He also pulls off one of the script's more difficult assignments, in a sequence that suggests there is a syncretic aspect to his Christianity, when he "carves" out a space around Moxie to help her find employment. At the performance I attended, this bit of business achieved the kind of silence that indicates a fiercely attentive audience.

The rest of the production, with one exception, is equally thoughtful and accomplished. Jason Sherwood's set -- a revolving cube that depicts Ama and Ukpong's apartment and porch, Disciple's rented room, the gas station, and Ama's hospital room -- is cleverly deployed; as it moves from one location to another, we see brief glimpses of the characters, updating us on their status. Each location is sensitively lit by Jiyoun Chang, who is especially good at nighttime exterior looks. Shaw's costumes are meticulously conceived for each character -- Moxie's work wear, especially that blonde wig, is especially memorable. Jeremy S. Bloom's sound design deploys a tunestack of soul hits that go a long way toward explaining Ukpong's infatuation with his new life. The one, thoroughly odd, misstep, is the puppet, designed by Stefano Brancato, of Ama and Ukpong's baby; it's a bizarre and unnecessary creation that draws attention to itself.

As indicated above, the situation is resolved when Ama makes a thoroughly surprising, almost ruthless decision that nevertheless feels remarkably true to her character. Udofia ends the play on a tantalizing note, wondering what everyone's next move will be. This is in part, I think, because Sojourners is the first in a cycle of "Ufot family plays." I avidly await the next installment. -- David Barbour

(1 February 2016)

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