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Theatre in Review: Sojourners/Her Portmanteau (New York Theatre Workshop)

Top: Hubert Point-Du Jour, Chinasa Ogbuagu in Soujourners. Bottom: Jenny Jules, Ogbuagu in Her Portmanteau. Photos: Joan Marcus

These paired offerings are part of a projected nine-play cycle about the history of one Nigerian American family. Certainly, the playwright, Mfoniso Udofia, doesn't lack for ambition. I am reliably informed that Udofia doesn't intend the cycle, when completed, to be seen in any particular order. Still, the events of Her Portmanteau, which unfold three decades after Sojourners, detail the results of momentous decisions made in the earlier play -- so much so that I wonder if Her Portmanteau really stands alone. It's a question that has major implications for the remaining plays in the cycle, many of which apparently have yet to be written.

Sojourners was first seen in New York in winter 2016, in a production by The Playwrights Realm. New York Theatre Workshop has reassembled the cast, director, and most of the designers, and, once again, the play beguiles. Abasiama and Ukpong are young marrieds from Nigeria living on student visas in Houston circa 1978. Far from home, their relationship is coming apart at the seams. A diligent student of biology, Abasiama is nine months pregnant and experiencing alarming pains that are exacerbated by having to stand at her all-night shift at a gas station. Ukpong hasn't cracked a book in months; he prefers to swan around in modified pimp outfits, grooving to soul music and raving over his attendance at rallies like the one where "this man got up there, round midnight, to light the altar on fire on(?) how we have to live and love and that is the sole purpose of life." The deeply uncomfortable Abasiama listens to this sort of thing with one ear while juggling the roles of wife, mother-to-be, and student. Their affection for each other is evident, however, and there are many suggestions that they were once very happy. Now, however, America has replaced Abasiama in her husband's affections. "If we stay? We'll be like the trash the country puts to the side," she warns him.

Meanwhile, there's a worrying letter from their university that Ukpong keeps stashed under the sofa cushions, lest Abasiama get a look at it. When he disappears without explanation, she is thrown together with Moxie, a loudmouthed, barely literate prostitute who is desperate to escape the life, and Disciple, a God-haunted Nigerian student, who quickly becomes convinced that Abasiama is the woman of his dreams. She is initially resistant to his attentions, but he begins to make headway with a single question: "Who on this earth knows you but your own?"

Once again, under the direction of Ed Sylvanus Iskandar, all four of these mixed-up characters retain their claim on our interest and affection. In the confident hands of Hubert Point-Du Jour, Ukpong's joy in all things American is infectious even when he complains about Abasiama's "broken-bird thing," i.e., her patient way of dealing with hard work and suffering. Lakisha Michelle May's Moxie is a perfect little hellion, ready to tear off anyone's head when she feels thwarted, yet curiously vulnerable when we see the awful bruises given her by an abusive client. As Abasiama describes growing up in a large compound surrounded by extended family, you don't need any expository dialogue to know that Moxie has lived a very different life; the look on May's face tells all. Chinaza Uche captures Disciple's fierce eccentricity, as well as his profound feeling of dislocation and a corresponding arrogance based in his certain belief that he has a direct line to God. But he is also capable of silencing Abasiama's fears, confidently asserting, "I grant you, one day you'll want to see my face over and over. People call me strange, yes! But people also call me good."

Towering over everything is Chinasa Ogbuagu's Abasiama, who wears her troubles lightly right up to the moment when she must face the truth about her collapsing marriage and make a choice that will alter the lives of everyone. She makes the most of her character's sly humor: When presented by Ukpong with a gift of a record by his favorite Motown artists, she murmurs, "You've been wanting that new Smokey thing, so I deduced I'd soon receive it." As she mulls over her marital problems, there's something terribly touching about her admission that "there's no word, where I am from, for what this is." The tale of her marriage is told when, holding her baby, she tells Ukpong, "It's the exact same kind of love you had for me....mountains of desire and a bitter, bitter river of burden."

All the characters in Sojourners are in exile -- from their homes, their affections, and themselves. Udofia gives voice to their longings, dreams, and rages, and we are glad to follow them as they haltingly try to work out their destinies. One instinctively wants to know what happens to them next.

Sojourners begins and ends with the sight of Abasiama standing alone, a bit of staging that reinforces one's sense of the hard road facing her. In Her Portmanteau -- and be warned that there are many spoilers ahead -- it is 2011 and Iniabasi, the daughter of Abasiama and Ukpong, is standing alone in JFK, angrily waiting to be picked up. Iniabasi grew up in Nigeria, raised by Ukpong. Abasiama, remained in the US, having long ago married Disciple, but the alliance has not been one of unalloyed happiness, thanks to his ongoing struggle with mental illness. Unwilling to expose Iniabasi to this troubling situation, Abasiama has enlisted the help of Adiagha, her daughter by Disciple, to help stage-manage this mother-and-child reunion.

Udofia's writing once again has many telling moments. Abasiama, irritated by Adiagha's habit of collecting scented candles, grumbles, "It smells like confusion in here." There's also a tasty moment when Iniabasi, with a devastatingly knowing look and a muttered half-syllable, signals her recognition that her halfsister is a lesbian. It's also fascinating to see how the gentle Abasiama has matured into a tough, if protective, matriarch.

Nevertheless, Her Portmanteau is curiously drab, a standard-issue parent-and-child reckoning, if one with slightly more unusual trappings. The main action is the settling-up between Abasiama and Iniabasi, who, not unreasonably, feels abandoned by her mother. The play, which is informed by sitcom-style jokes in its early passages, devolves into a series of speeches that seem a little prefabricated. The glory of Sojourners is that its characters are so fresh, their dilemmas so unique to them; in contrast, Her Portmanteau seems like so many other dysfunctional family dramas. Each character gets her aria, and it all feels just a tiny bit hollow.

And although the issues dividing all three characters are aired, they aren't given the tremendous specificity of Sojourners. If you haven't seen the earlier play, you can't really appreciate the complex, deeply rooted problems that have shaped their lives, or how Abasiama has been transformed by the decision she made as a young woman. Sojourners is a constantly surprising work, with carefully shaded characters; Her Portmanteau is a rather dreary exercise in finger-pointing.

Still, it's worth seeing, partly for Ogbuagu, who is unrecognizable as Adiagha. (The costume design, by Loren Shaw, is a big help, providing her in both plays with clothing that reshapes her figure, but is also an actress capable of startling transformations.) As the American daughter, she has plenty of grievances to share, but they come with a delightful, scatterbrained sense of humor, especially when she is busily practicing shuttle diplomacy between her mother and halfsister. Adepero Oduye is a powerful presence as Iniabasi, casting waves of disapproval around the stage with a single look. If Jenny Jules sometimes goes a little overboard in her big speeches as Abasiama, she makes a formidable mother figure, even in her most vulnerable moments.

Jason Sherwood's set makes excellent use of a turntable to keep the action of both plays moving, but, for some reason I cannot guess, he has hung an enormous window frame over the action. (His original design for Sojourners, based around a revolving cube, was far more effective, although admittedly it was designed for a much smaller theatre and might have looked lost on the New York Theatre Workshop stage.) The panes of this overhead window are often filled with video images, by Jiyoun Chang, most of which are of negligible effect. Chang's lighting is generally adept, however, as is Jeremy S. Bloom's sound design, especially when deploying the soul tunes Ukpong loves so well.

It remains early days for this Udofia's cycle and additional works may cast the entire project in a different light. Based on these early returns, the work is vast in scope, but uneven in execution. Still, I'm avid to hear more. I hope theatre companies are looking to sign up the next installment. -- David Barbour

(26 May 2017)

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