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runboyrun & In Old Age

Not more than one hour ago you called me harlot. Sleeping with everyone in my church. Where do I put that? Where do I put you? (angry to the sky) God! Where am I supposed to put this man? — Abasiama in runboyrun
Left to right: Zenzi Williams, Patrice Johnson Chevannes, Chike Johnson, Adesola Osakalumi, Karl Green, Adrianna Mitchell (photo: Joan Marcus)
There will be two distinct audiences attending runboyrun and In Old Age, the latest two episodes of Mfoniso Udofia’s nine-part family saga, known under the umbrella title of The Ufot Cycle.

There will be those are have already been enthralled by the first two dramatic chapters about the life of Nigerian immigrant Abasiama Ekpeyoung as she adapted to life in America — Sojourners and Her Portmanteau which New York Theater Workshop presented together in 2017. ( review). Then there will those who are coming in cold but who will hopefully warm up to Udofia’s generational and history-spanning epoch.

The good news is that whether you are prepared to be entranced or challenged, the sheer power of Udofia’s narrative drive is undeniable. Her characters are highly motivated but often haunted. They are also capable of speaking out from the darkest reaches of their souls. I couldn’t help but think of a dramatic device used by Eugene O’Neill for Strange Interlude in which the internal thoughts of the characters are actually heard. Yes, wordy it is. So if you don’t like the idea of words taking a dominant position in the action then you may have a problem.

A first-generation Nigerian-American, Udofia writes adventurously from a gritty and earthy world view, but also with a lyricism that embraces the sheer theatricality of magical realism - an intoxicating mix. Unfortunately, the actors are uncompromising in their strict adherence to their native dialects making too much of the dialogue incomprehensible.

There are two different directors at the helm: Loretta Greco directs runboyrun and Awoye Timpo directs In Old Age . For me, their approaches to the plays are essentially complementary. It is what happens in the earlier Sojourners that provides the best and easiest back story for runboyrun and In Old Age . To be brief: As a young immigrant and new mother, Abasiama is deserted by her first husband who has returned to Nigeria with their child. Abasiama unexpectedly finds a life, a career and even love again with the tormented religious zealot/well-educated Disciple whom she marries and has children with.

In runboyrun, Abasiama (Patrice Johnson Chevannes) and Disciple (Chike Johnson) are now middle aged. It is 2014 and their home in Worcester, Massachusetts is not in the best of shape. what's worse is that Disciple has continued a downward spiral —hallucinating, talking to himself and concerned that his teaching job at the University is in jeopardy. Abasiama bears the brunt of his frequent rages. Their marriage is not just on the rocks, but sheer hell and heading for divorce.

Abasiama is reluctant to come out from under the piles of blankets on their threadbare sofa. She is near her wit's end with him as he rants and raves and storms about the house. Drawn to the basement where he repeats and repeats memories of his youth. He sees visions of his younger self (a mostly silent Karl Green), his religion-intoxicated mother (Zenzi Williams), his adored sister (Adrianna Mitchell) and seriously injured brother back in war-ravaged Nigeria during the Biafra secession in the mid 1960s. Tragedy occurs as they run to escape bullets and the falling bombs.

This all plays out with the actors using the aisles of the theater for their running and hiding as the sounds of bullets and bombs areheard, loudly but effectively.

Disciple's unwillingness and actual inability to speak of his past has nearly destroyed the marital relationship. That a resolve comes through a radical but mystical experience deployed by Abasiama is not surprising, considering the playwright’s penchant for a dramatic device that is as useful as it is also predictable.

Talking too much and covering the same territory again and again may be one of the playwright’s more indulgent conceits, but her cast knows how to make every word count. Johnson’s scarily glaring eyes and his frightening outbursts define a severely injured soul. Chevannes gives a stunning performance as an almost martyred Abasiama who's determined to help free her tormented husband from the ghosts of his past.

In Old Age finds the elderly Abasiama beneath a mountain of blankets on the old sofa where she listens to church music as if to drown out the sounds of the almost rhythmic banging that seems to come from the walls and the floor beneath her. The home in which she has remained in since the death of Disciple has become a tomb— a place for ghosts or for restless spirits to reside and determined to defy Disciple’s departure.

Presumably a recluse and more than a bit daft, Abasiama (again played by Chevannes) is reluctant to admit Azell Abernathy (Ron Canada) a Mr. fix-it/general carpenter who has been hired by Abasiama’s daughters to repair all that needs repairing. Think Driving Miss Daisy ,and this may give you an inkling to the hostile/icy almost comical reception Azell gets from Abasiama. His attempt to be friendly and to win points with light and breezy conversation is received with disdain.

Abasiama thwarts Azell’s every move to complete the job that includes the putting down of a new floor. Canada, who was last on Broadway in Network and probably best known for his recurring roles in TV’s Madam Secretary and The West Wing quickly changes the mood of the play, as he asserts his presence—at least in the early part, . His attempts to break through Abasiama’s distrust becomes a mission.

Ironically, she soon believes it is her mission to break down what she sees as Azell’s false facade and the life he has built on denials. Here is yet another man who may need an exorcism or help from a truth-enabler to free himself from his past. The gloom that permeates Andrew Boyce’s bi-level setting is intensified by Oona Curly’s eerie lighting and the seriously invasive banging created by sound designer David Van Tieghem.

The restoration process of the home is well-handled although audiences in the first few rows will not be able to see the finished flooring. What everyone will see is Abasiama reaching a point of completion and a sense of peace. And we know that there is the next generation that is still out there building and fulfilling their lives in those other chapters within Udofia’s unquestionably compelling cycle of plays.

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runboyrun & In Old Age by Mfoniso Udofia
Directed by Loretta Greco
Cast for Run Boy Run: Karl Green as Boy, Chiké Johnson as Disciple Ufot, Patrice Johnson Chevannes as Abasiama Ufot, Adrianna K. Mitchell as Sister, Adesola, .
Cast for In Old Age: Osakalumi as Ben Gun, and Zenzi Williams as Mother Ron Canada as Azell Abernathy (
Sscenic design by Andrew Boyce
Costumes by Karen Perry
Lighting by Oona Curley
Sound design by David Van Tieghem
Hair and wig design by J. Jared Janas
Ddialect coach: Jerome Butler
Daramaturg:Katherine Kovner
Stage Manager: Caroline Englander Running Time: 3 and 1/2 hours total including 1 intermission between the two plays
New York Theatre Workshop 79 E. 4th Street
From 9/04/19; opening 9/23/19; closing 10/13/19.
Reviewed by Simon Saltzman at 9/21/press preview

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