By Mfoniso Udofia
Directed by Ed Sylvanus Iskandar
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
Playwright Mfoniso Udofia’s “Sojourners” and “Her Portmanteau,” currently running in repertory at New York Theatre Workshop, are exquisitely crafted and skillfully performed explorations into the life of determined matriarch Abasiama Ekpeyoung-Ufot (the younger played by Chinasa Ogbuagu and the older by Jenny Jules), her two husbands Ukpong Ekpeyoung (played with a willful distraction by Hubert Point-Du-Jour) and Disciple Ufot (played with a mysterious puzzlement by Chinaza Uche), her two daughters Iniabasi Ekpeyoung (Adepero Oduye) and Adiagha Ufot (also played by the remarkable Chinasa Ogbuagu), and her friend Moxie Wills (played with layer upon layer of sadness by Lakisha Michelle May).
In “Sojourners,” Abasiama and her husband Upkong emigrate to the United States from Nigeria on student visas. The plan: finish their college educations and return to Nigeria to use their new skills to benefit their country. The reality: Upkong neglects his studies, neglects his wife and new child, and leaves them. The play concludes with Abasiama sending their new child Iniabasi and her husband Upkong back to Nigeria. In “Her Portmanteau,” Iniabasi comes to visit her mother at her sister’s apartment in New York City. The fireworks begin when Adiagha (instead of Abasiama) picks up Iniabasi late at JFK.
Under Ed Sylvanus Iskandar’s judicious and redemptive direction, the resplendent cast grapples with the complex dynamics of confession, forgiveness, and reconciliation with authenticity and deeply palpable believability. Adepero Oduye’s steely yet vulnerable Iniabasi (“in God’s time”) unleashes years of loneliness and disappointment on her mother and struggles with reuniting with her American born sister Adiagha amidst unbearable resentment and jealousy. Jenny Jules’s dispassionate yet protective Abasiama unpacks (literally) her feelings for her daughter when she removes layer after layer of “history” from Iniabasi’s battered red suitcase – the same torn suitcase Abasiama used when she and Ukpong first came to America from Nigeria and Upkong used when he returned to Nigeria.
The final scene in “Her Portmanteau” is a compelling testament to the power of unconditional and non-judgmental love, to the importance of “belonging” to a family and to a nation, and to the strength of a value system that transcends time and space. This ultimate trio of performances is innervated by the brilliant ensemble performances that precede them – performances illuminated by the shimmering pools of light provided by Jiyoun Chang that cascade across the protective manger-like set designed by Jason Sherwood.
These plays (the first two in a planned nine-play cycle) are not only poignant tales of the deep relationship between a mother and her estranged daughter but also compelling examinations of the complex and intricate reasons individuals leave their homelands for other lands and other opportunities. This exploration is particularly relevant in the current geopolitical climate of mass exoduses from oppressive regimes and war-ravaged towns and villages worldwide. Does one leave one’s home expecting to return or does one escape believing a return home will be impossible?
It is best to see the plays “in order” – “Sojourners” first then “Her Portmanteau.” If possible, it is a bonus to see both plays on the same weekend day. That said, the plays can stand alone and – in whatever order – need to be seen.