Imagine starting a new life. Imagine escaping hell – a war-torn Nigeria – and starting that new life somewhere else, somewhere nice, like Worcester, Massachusetts. For Disciple (Chiké Johnson) and Abasiama Ufot (Patrice Johnson Chevannes), war refugees turned academics, that was the plan. Yet, after 25 years of marriage, their life is stuck in an inexplicable predicament.
runboyrun introduces a couple at odds with each other: Disciple accuses Abasiama of sending ghosts after him, which he senses everywhere. Being driven increasingly mad, he resorts to incessant rituals, praying, chanting, and keeping the windows wide open in the cold New England winter, all of which his wife at best tolerates (and protests by turning up her TV volume). Abasiama, burrowing in her couch, wants nothing more than some peace and quiet, which seems like a luxury with Disciple stomping around in the basement. The basement, on the other hand, resembles more of a shelter, with compartmented shelves stacked full. This is Disciple’s domain, a completely different world than Abasiama’s. The couple’s opposition is further solidified by the pair of talented performers: Johnson’s exuberance is absolutely infectious, contrasting sharply with Chevannes’ consistently grounding presence.
You see Disciple’s ghosts though, as the present gets ripped open and the sound of ammunition transports you back to 1968 Nigeria. Boy (Karl Green) and his Sister (Adrianna Mitchell) are outside of their compound in spite of the alarms warning of attacks. The mute boy seems unaware of the amount of danger that surrounds them, and is utterly absorbed in his own world. The play shifts back and forth between the two worlds and we meet the rest of Boy’s family: there’s the older brother (Adesola Osakalumi) who’s injured during a previous “run” (they’ve been running from compound to compound, running away from danger, running for survival), and there’s the mother (Zenzi Williams) who’s made of steel. “During this war, all play time is now over!” Mother says, but Boy, like most boys his age, does not listen. He runs off to above ground, to Sister’s chagrin, but she nevertheless stays by his side.
The two different worlds of the play morph into one another, which is made easy by Andrew Boyce’s leveled set, as well as Oona Curley’s expressionistic lighting and David Van Tieghem’s atmospheric sound design. The stylized, rhythmic language filled with gorgeous onomatopoeia enhances the horror of war. With astonishing details, Brother describes witnessing the death of a woman. Repetitions of words and the staccato of sentences make Osakalumi’s expressive voice sound like bullets and curdling blood. It was a particularly visceral moment.
The familial love between the siblings is gorgeously depicted with this extraordinary cast. Sister’s imagination (Mitchell’s stunning portrayal makes her the standout) helps Boy time and again. The bond between them is a force to be reckoned with, and a thing that survives time and distance. Sister, as she promised Boy, remains “a broken piece of the world that will never leave”.
The blend of magical and actual realism, as well as the confident integration of different timelines in this play reminds me of the novel “Sing, Unburied, Sing” by Jesmyn Ward, where the surreal and the supernatural, are employed masterfully to enhance the reality.
runboyrun is ultimately about PTSD and how we heal through storytelling. At the end of the play, as truth brings about reconciliation, the couple starts to make the first step towards healing.
“Together we’ll fill in what is missing and make something…”
“Because you are good. Place those words into your memory.”
Because imagination is a far stronger force than the detriment of war, or, the only antidote, one can heal the oldest, deepest wounds.
Ghosts are very real in both runboyrun and its companion play, In Old Age. You carry your ghosts with you no matter where you run. Sometimes you call them by a different name when one day you find yourself praying to a different god, trying different ways to keep them out of your head. But they’re still there, lingering. A sound is a ghost, a word, a smell, or a pair of eyes can be a ghost – they remind you of someone and sometimes you wage war against someone simply because they remind you of your ghosts. A memory is a ghost.
It’s Abasiama who cannot escape her ghost in the latter play, which takes place a few decades after runboyrun. She’s now old and grey, still glued to her couch, haunted by Disciple’s ghost who cannot stop knocking around in the basement (all the shelves have been barred up). An unexpected visitor disrupts her daily routine, or the lack thereof. Azell Abernathy (Ron Canada) has been hired by Abasiama’s children to redo her floor and fix up her house, and after the initial hostility, Abasiama begrudgingly agrees to let him in.
The unlikely pair clashes and gradually connects, over the course of this 90-minute play, which remains captivating in every moment. While the theme is decidedly heavy, the play is also extremely funny. Abasiama’s mind is unfiltered and brilliant when she sees those beautiful cherry wood floor boards; the way she imagines her new floor inch by inch is the funniest and moving thing.
Although a dynamic two-hander, In Old Age really has three characters: Van Tieghem’s sound design makes Disciple’s presence impossible to ignore. And when Abasiama eventually gets rid of this ghost, his silence is palpable.
In Old Age is a play centered, again, on a character trying to find ways to heal from PTSD. In this particular case, we witness a woman who’s a survivor from both a war and an abusive relationship. We watch a woman reclaim her life, in old age, by performing an exorcism of her past, followed by a first step towards healing onto a brand new piece of cherry wood floor.
“This is for me,” she says over and over again. For the first time, the mother, the wife, the refugee, has something that’s just for her, “something more than imagining.”
Both runboyrun and In Old Age, or, the entire lineage of this family will be on my mind for years to come. runboyrun is one of the best plays I’ve seen about survivors of war and the PTSD that keeps them running after decades. Ms. Udofia has given us a tremendous gift (and keeps on giving as she continues the project nine part saga of the Ufot family). I am grateful to have seen these two plays and look forward to being in the audience for the remaining ones.