Sojourners & Her Portmanteau: The Star is Born
Mfoniso Udofia is a playwright that I have had little to no connection to. So the prospect of seeing two of her plays, one right after another, held a great excitement and sense of promise. I’m not sure why, but the words that make up the titles of her two plays, Sojourners & Her Portmanteau, felt powerful and packed deep with emotions. ‘Sojourners‘ signifies someone who is on a temporary stay and ‘Portmanteau‘ means a bag to carry clothing in while traveling. Seeing that this play is connected to the four generational Ufot play cycle created by Udofia to examine a Nigerian family who entered the United States in the 1970s, it was bound to be heavy in familial baggage. Packed to the rim. Just the kind of play that intrigues me.
Directed with skill and focus by Ed Sylvanus Iskandar on an exquisite stage design by Jason Sherwood (The View UpStairs), the revolve the floats these powerful tableaux out center stage works its magic on us. The images are ripe with emotion as they revolve in and out of sight. In the first play of the day, Sojourners, the exploration begins concerning the life journey of the very pregnant young woman standing before us, Abasiama Ekpeyoung, played with grace and maternal glory by the magnificent Chinasa Ogbuagu (PH’s The Qualms). We are certain from that moment, the leading character of the whole Ufot cycle will be that baby that is giving her mother such discomfort and pain. For the time being though, this play is about the mother-to-be and her struggle forward into her life as an immigrant student and wife in America. We are given a glimpse into what brings her and her difficult husband, Ukpong Ekpeyoung, portrayed devastatingly by Hubert Point-Du Jour (Primary Stage’s The Model Apartment) to Houston, Texas, and the troubles that are in store for this mismatched couple. The play is subtitled, “duty and desire” and essentially, that is the conflict at the heart of this moving play.
Furthering our unwavering devotion to Abasiama Ekpeyoung, is the relationships she fosters during the late hours at her night job at the gas station. A young American girl named Moxie Wilis, perfectly embodied by Lakisha Michelle May (Signature’s Everybody) needs this woman’s attention and care more than she can ever imagine. Their love and need for each other is one of the most touching and heart-breaking relationships in this two play day. One that will stay with me long beyond this day. Moxie needs a mother, and luckily for her, Abasiama is there. But there is another who is also in need of the warmth of Abasiama Ekpeyoung, and that is the struggling lost soul, Disciple Ufot, convincingly portrayed by Chinaza Uche (LAByrinth’s Dolphins & Sharks), who finds his way into that gas station at just the opportune moment. There is something not quite right about this man, but his need of Ekpeyoung’s warm embrace is so huge, it can not be ignored.
These powerful relationships set up the saga of the Ufot Cycle of plays, although I didn’t put 2 and 2 together at the moment, but ultimately, creates a strong platform to jump off of. Much to my surprise, the ending of Sojourners not only made me desperate to get back from the hour and half dinner break NYTW gives us, but the last seconds unsettled my heart. I was not prepared for what happened, nor what it would mean for the rest of these character’s lives, but that is the beauty of Udofia’s writing. The surprise that lives in the authentic-ness; a power that packs quite the punch.
Arriving back to the theatre, ready to dive back into the exploration of this family, I was well aware of the time jump. Her Portmanteau, the fourth in the cycle, after Sojourners (the first), The Grove (2nd) and runboyrun (3rd, for more details, check out her website by clicking here) jumps forward over thirty years, and as expected, this story subtitled “legacy and forgiveness”, is really about that child that was born to Abasiama Ufot (formerly Ekpeyoung), now played by Jenny Jules (The Crucible), near the end of Sojourners. That child, bearing the name Iniabasi Ekpeyoung, played by the powerful Adepero Oduye (The Trip to Bountiful), has arrived ready to connect again with her roots. She finds herself in the apartment of her half sister, Adiagha Ufot, but unaware why. Adiagha is amazingly portrayed by the same actress who played her mother in the earlier play, the almost unrecognizable Chinasa Ogbuagu. It’s a knock down brilliant transformation that still astounds me. The three are brought together to come to terms with abandonment, history, and cultural divides. The apartment is thick with unsaid grievances, desires, and complications forcing these three compelling characters into a cycle of conflict and repair at an alarming rate. All are excellent and completely engaged in this one act play. A true marvel that is only made better after watching the origin play, Sojourners.
Little did I know how meaningful Loren Shaw’s (Restoration Comedy) costume design would carry us through, along with the beautiful subtle work of Jiyoun Chang’s (Roundabout’s Ugly Lies The Bone) lighting and projection design on the ceiling, and Jeremy S. Bloom’s (New Group’s Buried Child) sound design. Each ingredient adds depth and development to this rich piece. The very first image of suitcases revolving; arriving from destinations unknown, is as telling as can be. They speak of the greater dynamics of these immigrant travelers and the displacement and collision of their cultural worlds. Creating clashes that will reverberate over generations. Sojourners is the birth of this family and Her Portmanteau is just the start of the unpacking that is needed. When duty and desire collide, legacy and forgiveness can begin. What an appropriate and perfect way to spend my Mother’s Day. PS: I love you, Mom.