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A CurtainUp Review
Sojourners & Her Portmanteau

Sojourners & Her Pormanteau in Context
of Mfoniso Udofia's Epic Cycle

I started out writing one play and then it became three and then five, and now it's nine plays.— Mfoniso Udofia
What you're seeing at New York Theatre Workshop are two plays of Nigerian-American playwright Mfoniso Udofia's still in progress cycle of nine plays about various members of a family formed when they were emigres on student visas in Houston. Texas. The characters in both plays will be dealing with assimilation, exile and the ripple effect of heir actions on familial relationships.

Actually this ambitious cycle began as a single play, The Grove (to my knowledge, still unproduced) that centered on Adiagha Ufot, whose parents came (separately) to Texas to enroll at Texas University. Of the two young men and one woman, two stay to become citizens, one returns.

As the playwright developed Adiagha's story about her efforts to strike a balance between her Nigerian history and her current life in America, questions and issues about her parents surfaced and seemed to demand a play about their meeting in Texas in 1978.

That play was Sojourners, which in turn led to the situation that triggered the events that come full circle 36 years later in Her Portmanteau , the second half of the current double offering

Of the plays in the planned cycle that Udofia has completed Her Pormanteu is number four in the cycle. It was preceded by one which zeroed in on Abasiama's life between the end of Sojourners in 1978 and the present day Her Portmanteau in which events of that in-between play are worked into the dialogue. While there's one other play with Abasiama at its center, the final four will be about the kids, several of whom are mentioned in Her Portmanteau.

Ms. Uofia deserves a big hand for introducing us to a heretofore little known group of hyphenated Americans — even if, judging from the two plays now on offer, her scripts could use brisker, more dramatic pacing and less reliance on solo or duet story telling.

Before I move on to more about each play, a word regarding this repertory set-up. . .

New York Theatre Workshop has described both Sojourners and Her Portmanteau as free-standing plays, and tickets are therefore sold separately and you can see just one or both plays.Sojourners is the one that can most easily stand on its own, as it indeed did during a brief earlier run by Playwrights Realm (same cast, director and creative team). Her Portmanteau is more meaningful if seen with its repertory partner, ideally after rather than before Sojouners. If your time and theatrical budget can accommodate just one, see Sojourners. The best way to catch both, would be at one of the weekend matinees, which present them in the above suggested order, with a dinner break in between

Yes-OK- but now- because here I am. Studying and working so you can buy me records I don't like, with the money I make while you keep all your father's funds and ride in Thunderbirds. How many class days have you missed?— Abasiama.
Chinasa Ogbuagu as Abasiama Ekpeyoung in Sojourners (Photo: Joan Marcus)
In the 1970s, Texas Southern University in Houston was a favorite destination for Nigerians seeking a reasonably priced American college degrees. So that's where we find Abasiama Ekpeyoung (Chinasa Ogbuagu), whose actions and their consequences drive both Sojourners and Her Portmanteau. But Abasiama is not having an easy time. She's pregnant, trying to keep up with her biology studies and in a difficult arranged marriage to the charismatic Ukpong Ekpeyoung (Hubert Point Du-Jur).

The problem is not a loveless relationship. Ukpong is good looking and charismatic. But he's more in love with the American way of life and its music than studying, attending classes, or staying at his young wife's side.

Though Sojourners has all the elements of a domestic drama, it also taps into Udofia's larger theme about the immigrant's sense of displacement and loneliness. Actually it's not your typical immigrant story since students like Abasiama and Ukpong haven't come to America expecting to stay. This is certainly the case for Abasiama who is far less enamored with what goes on in America than Ukpong. Yet she does end up staying (since the NYTW program lists the characters names for both plays, I'm not spoiling any surprises here) and it's how and why she makes that decision that serves as the basis for Her Portmanteau but provides Sojourners with its most moving scene.

As Sojourners opens, Abasiama is just days away from giving birth. Even before her handsome, fun loving husband Ukpong (Hubert Point Du-Jour) shows up to sweet talk and kiss her, it's clear that she's the serious and studious one in this marriage, committed to their finishing their studies but homesick for the family in Nigeria to which they are to return upon graduation. It's because the fun and and American music smitten Ukpong has spent more money than their families provide that Abasiama is still working part-time at a grungy gas station even though she's in the final month of her pregnancy.

When Ukpong disappears again (this time not showing again until after the baby s born), Abasiama finds a connection with another kind of outsider —Moxi(Lakisha Michelle May), a native born but illiterate American for whom a job in that gas station would be a chance to get out of her life as a much abused prostitute. Though unsupported by her husband, Moxie and Disciple Ufot (Chinaza Uche), another Nigerian who's been tragically affected by the violence in much of their homeland, are at Abasiama's side when she finally gives birth. But as it turns out, she's an anchor for their emotional neediness.

While, the men's stories carry forward into Her Portmanteau, only Abasiama is actually on stage again . And though the performances overall are excellent, it's Chinasa Ogbuago who's Sojournerw' most riveting presence. Her metamorphoses into the next play's character is reason enough sign on for the whole package.

Sojourners is too talky and long-winded but Director Ed Sylvanus Iskandar has offset these flaws with his dramatic staging. He's well supported by his crafts team, especially Jason Sherwood's clever revolving set which brings on props for the different Locales: the Ekpeyoung living room, the gas station, the bedroom where we see the solitary Disciple trying to find a way out of his post-traumatic mental state, and a hospital room.

Her Portmanteau

I'm trying to have peaceful things happen in here. I'm working on peaceful / things
— Adiagha, the first generation American daughter of Abasiama and her second husband Disciple Ufot, during the volatile meeting between her mother and her first-born, Iniabasi unfolds. she, her with her Nigerian half-sister
Adepero Oduye as Iniabasi Ekpeyoung (Joan Marcus
Fast forward thirty-six years for a fraught confrontration between an older Abasiama (now played by Jenny Jules) and Iniabasi Ekpeyoung (Adapero Oduye), that now grown up baby.

It's evident from their surnames that Abasiama divorced the husband whose waywardness cut short his life in America, and also let him take their baby girl with him; and that she ended up marrying the attentive but somewhat deranged Disciple. The third cast member, is Chinasa Ogbuagu remarkably transformed into Adiagha Ufot, the eldest daughter born of that marriage.

Since this is a single scene, single day play, that turntable comes into play mainly to create one of those airport roll-around contraptions from which travelers retrieve their luggage. It's from the visiting Iniabasi's bright red case or "portmanteau" that gives this piece its title.

The fact that Iniabasi has been rerouted to her stepsister's Upper Manhattan apartment instead of her mother's Massachusetts home sets off the tensions and resentments that surface. Ultimately, that titular suitcase takes center stage as the device to bring all this emotional sturm and drang to a touching climax.

Despite all the information sandwiched in, Her Portmanteau has too many frustrating loose ends. Since Abasiama and the never seen Disciple do own a house,, what kind of jobs did either or both hold? Did they finish their degrees? As for Adiagha, there's no real explanation for her being so compulsive or what she does to pay the rent. The hint about her being a Lesbian and her mother's discomfort with that (typical of the Nigerian Catholic church) remain hints.

Despite my quibbles, Her Pormanteau is emotionally dynamic enough to make me look forward to meeting Adiagha's siblings and Iniabasi's young son when Ms. Udofia finishes her Ufot saga.

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Sojourners&HerPortmanteau by Mfoniso Udofia
Directed by Ed Sylvanus Iskandar
Cast-Sojourners: Lakisha Michelle May as Moxie Wills, Chinasa Ogbuagu as Abasiama Ekpeyoung, Hubert Point-Du Jour as Ukpong Ekpeyoung, and Chinaza Uche as Disciple Ufot.
Cast-Portmanteau: Jenny Jules as Abasiama Ufot, Adepero Oduye as Iniabasi Ekpeyoung, and Chinasa Ogbuaga as Adiagha Ufot.
Scenic design: Jason Sherwood
Costume design: Loren Shaw
Lighting and video design: Jiyoun Chang
Sound design: Jeremy S. Bloom
Dialect & text coach:Dawn-Elin Fraser
Dramaturgy: Janice Paran
Stage Manager: Kara Kaufman
Runnng Time: Sojourners 2 1/2 hours including 1 intermission; Her Portmanteau, 1 hour and 40 minutes, no intermission
New York Theater Workshop 79 E. 4th Street
From 4/22/17; opening 5/16/17; closing 6/04/17 -extended to 6/11/17
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 5/14/17 press preview

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