Reviews NYCOff-Broadway Published 18 May 2017

Sojourners & Her Portmanteau at New York Theater Workshop

New York Theatre Workshop ⋄ 16th May - 4th June 2017

Loren Noveck and Molly Grogan discuss two sections of Mfoniso Udofia’s 9-part cycle about a Nigerian-American family.

Loren Noveck and Molly Grogan
Chinasa Ogbuagu, Jenny Jules and Adepero Oduye in Her Portmanteau. Photo: Joan Marcus

Chinasa Ogbuagu, Jenny Jules and Adepero Oduye in Her Portmanteau. Photo: Joan Marcus

Sojourners and Her Portmanteau are the first and fourth plays, respectively, in Mfoniso Udofia’s uncompleted nine-part Ufot Cycle about three generations of a Nigerian-American family. They are paired under Ed Sylvanus Iskandar’s direction, at New York Theater Workshop and can be seen alone or together in either order: Her Portmanteau takes place in contemporary NYC and tells the story of a Nigerian woman, Abasiama, and her two daughters, born of different fathers and raised on two different continents; Sojourners tells how Abasiama came to know those men and have one of those daughters, in Houston, TX, in the 1960s . Loren Noveck and Molly Grogan saw them in their recommended order, that is to say, in reverse chronology, in a single evening, with a dinner break catered by Eat Offbeat, a provider of ethnic cooking prepared by refugee cooks in NYC.

Molly: I think we agreed during dinner that the Nepalese food was amazing and by far the best way to eat in the hour intermission, especially with a group of other theater geeks discussing the first play!

As for food for reflection, I was thinking a lot about “portmanteau” as a word and an image in the production. I loved the opening of Her Portmanteau, where a baggage carrousel circles the stage with bright red, pre-roller era suitcases, which dwindle down eventually to just the one belonging to Iniabasi, the daughter raised in Nigeria. Her action of claiming it at JFK starts the action. We learn that the suitcase belonged to her mother, Abasiama, when she sent Iniabasi, an infant, back to Nigeria with her first husband, effectively ending their relationship. So here is the daughter coming back with the same suitcase, and it turns out it’s filled with Abasiama’s memories, posing the question of ownership of history and narratives, right away.  In the same way, the word “portmanteau” is a relic from the past. It’s only used now in a linguistic sense of two combined words. In a sense, Her Portmanteau is this collision of Abasiama’s past and present.

Loren: I loved that opening too, though I think it set up expectations for something less realistic and more imagistic than the plays in fact are. But I thought it was also a good visual tip-off to the talismanic role that objects play in these pieces to connect the present and the past–the suitcase is the one most remarked upon, but I noticed at least two others (a leather jacket brought to New York by Iniabasi in Portmanteau and worn by her father, Ukpong, in Sojourners and a trunk used as furniture in Adiagha’s apartment that Disciple, her father, carries in Sojourners). This family seems to have intense private connections to the relationships and the reminders of their shared past(s), but very rarely discuss those connections, even among one another.

Molly: Yes, Disciple’s trunk gets a lot of use in Her Portmanteau, before we know who its owner was and its significance, and it’s a little “ahh” moment when we see it in Sojourners. Photos, too, have great significance in Her Portmanteau, but in their case, they are not part of the set design, except in the final photo montage – projected onto Jason Sherwood’s huge, overhanging structure that serves as  both lighting and a projection screen (the latter more so in Sojourners). The two suitcases sit front and center in Her Portmanteau but we don’t see the photos the characters discuss with care, which feels like a metaphor for the older Abasiama’s way of eluding reality in her relationships; we can’t see those people the characters describe, the same way Abasiama can’t “see” Iniabasi as her abandoned daughter.

But the suitcases imply a lot, immediately, about movement, carrying, holding and the past.  Even though “portmanteau” implies travel, Her Portmanteau is rooted in place, the action is static, in Adiagha’s apartment, whereas Sojourners, which implies a temporary stasis, feels fast and forward moving, with four powerful characters and the constantly turning set.

Loren: Though Portmanteau is about one very specific movement :  Iniabasi’s journey , from America to Nigeria as an infant, and now back to America 36 years later. And because Nigeria and Iniabasi’s son who remains there are so present to her, I felt Portmanteau evoked the complexity of the family’s Nigerian roots with more emotional power than Sojourners. In Sojourners, Abasiama, Ukpong (Abasiama’s first husband), and Disciple (later Abasiama’s second husband) all intend to return to Nigeria (Disciple is even writing his dissertation about Nigerian patterns of immigration and return), but their lives are consumed with the struggles of the moment.

Still, that split between stasis and movement registered with me as well. Portmanteau is rooted in time, as well as place–it all takes place on a single evening, which I think is perhaps to its detriment. It’s tackling more than thirty years of occluded, suppressed, and evaded relationships and memories, yet it reaches a hasty (and to me unsatisfying) resolution that seems to promise to turn back the clock and almost erase the events in the play itself. Sojourners doesn’t take place over a grand span of time–about two weeks–but where Portmanteau restores its status quo, Sojourners tracks enormous, consequential events in the lives of Abasiama, Ukpong, Disciple, and Iniabasi: Iniabasi’s birth, the disintegration of Ukpong and Abasiama’s marriage, the meeting between Abasiama and the man she will later marry, and ultimately the decisions that directly lead to the events of Portmanteau: Abasiama’s refusal to return to Nigeria with Ukpong and their infant daughter. Those two weeks also contain the birth, growth, and dissolution of an unusual friendship between Abasiama and the only non-family character in either play–Moxie, a young American prostitute who, partly through coincidence and partly because of Ukpong’s failures as a husband, is by Abasiama’s side for the birth of her daughter, and to whom Abasiama is more tender than we see her with either daughter, then or later. I’m very curious as to whether Moxie returns elsewhere in the cycle–partly because she’s vibrant and vulnerable in a way none of the others allow themselves to be, and partly because she has a little hint of deus ex machina about her and I think that would feel less manufactured if she proves to be an ongoing element in the saga.

Molly: The other thing that struck me immediately, perhaps because we saw the performances the day before Mother’s Day, was that the story rests on that universal taboo of the mother who abandons her children (its strength is on display again in the current success of Lucas Hnath’s  A Doll’s House Part 2:  haven’t we all wondered what “punitive” things might happens to Nora after she breaks that taboo?). It’s logical to imagine that, for Nora to survive on her own as a divorced woman in 19th century Norway, she’d have to be quite resourceful, but Hnath goes one step further into self-centeredness. I thought it was interesting that Abasiama also seems quite selfish in Portmanteau, and pretty clueless about the full scope of the consequences of her choice on her daughter. We see Abasiama as a much different, more generous and caring, younger woman in Sojourners, so I wonder how Udofia will explore in the rest of the cycle how she becomes the much more insensitive person we see in Portmanteau. I think her second husband has something to do with it, but I’m getting into another subject there.

Loren: And here Iniabasi, too, has abandoned her child–she plans to bring him to America a week later, but this seems to be optimistic wishing rather than actual planning. It’s a real marker of the emotional barriers in this family that no one seems to have raised the question of who would be taking care of Iniabasi’s son when she moved to America ; they all made different assumptions, which mostly turn out to be based on incorrect information . And it’s also noteworthy–both in the context of American theater and in the Nigerian/Nigerian-American culture depicted in these plays–that both of Abasiama’s husbands appear to have been fathers who were (mostly) physically present but utterly emotionally absent from their children, yet that inadequacy is presented as less damaging than Abasiama’s choices.

Another moment that registered strongly for me in Portmanteau was when Iniabasi challenges Adiagha on her right to her name, which means “eldest.” She says Adiagha may be “Adiagha Disciple”–the eldest child of her father–but Iniabasi is “Adiagha Abasiama”–the eldest of their mother. It’s a brilliant, compact way to re – stake her claim to this family and to this mother. “I am sure your father named you,” she adds–which is giving a kind of credit to Abasiama, that she could not have performed such an act of cruelty as to write her eldest daughter out of the family in this symbolic way. Yet we see in Sojourners the beginning of a shift in Abasiama, from an open, trusting person to one who expects betrayal at every turn, and is capable of protecting herself first.

I think the “recommended” order definitely colors our perception of Abasiama; I think it is more effective to see the end before the beginning, given the cycle’s themes of tracing the present back to the past. But I wonder if seeing the plays in chronological order would have cast Abasiama’s actions as revealed in Portmanteau in a more nuanced light.

Molly: I think a chronological viewing would have cast Abasiama in a more sympathetic light in Her Portmanteau. I agree with you that Her Portmanteau was frustratingly compact as it hurries to resolve an extremely complicated situation in a single night. The ending felt unrealistic and pat, as if these women were really becoming a family just by sitting together on the couch and skyping in another family member (Adiagha’s brother – in reality only adding more complexity to this already unusual family dynamic). Knowing something about the context in which Abasiama made the choice to send her child away would have helped us understand why she never brought her to the US later, which is the question we don’t understand in Her Portmanteau and why it feels so unsatisfying.  It’s a more complicated audience response that Udofia and Iskandar are looking for, by presenting the plays in this order, ideally (of course, audiences can see them in either order). We judge Abasiama through the lens of her two daughters in Her Portmanteau; her story is told by the two daughters through two very different optics. But in Sojourners, we see her story unfold in context and judge it  through our own lenses. Later, we have to admit our interpretations were skewed by those two unreliable narrators. The difficulty of  knowing what really motivates people is another theme here, and so far only Abasiama’s motivations are explored in these two sections of the larger play cycle.

Loren: And her portrayal is colored and complicated further by the fact that the same actor, Chinasa Ogbuagu, plays Adiagha in Portmanteau and Abasiama in Sojourners, a link that can’t help but cement her connection to her American daughter. Ogbuagu brings an entirely different energy to the two roles, but both share a kind of solidity and pragmatism that links them.

Molly: As you mentioned, Moxie is another character we’d like to learn more about. Disciple, too –  though, contrary to what Udofia is asking us to do, I’m going to go with my first impression and say he’s just crazy! Chinaza Uche plays Disciple here, after portraying a similar character in Labyrinth’s Dolphins & Sharks this season, again walking a line between fanaticism and danger on the one hand and a basically principled humanity on the other.

Loren: I agree Disciple is crazy, but I also think he (and Moxie in a different way), add a layer of complexity to the plays’ national and class politics. In Portmanteau, the opposition is between the “rich” Americans and the “poor” relative from Nigeria; we’re then asked to qualify what counts as rich. But in Sojourners, we see Disciple as an orphan who dragged himself to America by sheer will, as opposed to Abasiama and Ukpong, who are sent overseas by their wealthy, more socially prominent families. the whole dimension of class politics among and between the Nigerian students.

Molly: And we also understand he has lost family in the very bloody violence of the Nigerian-Biafran War, a trauma that could explain his mental state. I might also add that Loren Shaw’s costumes highlighted the cultural nuances and personalities of the characters very effectively: Disciple’s Texas Southern U letter jacket showed his need to fit into an institution or power structure and hinted at his rigid mentality, while Ukpong’s groovy look was a way of claiming membership in the 60s counter culture and dispense with the traditions and responsibilities of his Nigerian culture (so it’s ironic he returns to Nigeria, whereas Disciple stays in the US). Another strong contrast was made by Iniabasi’s stylized jeans, blouse and ballerinas when she arrives from Lagos versus Adiagha’s typically American look of leggings, baggy sweater and slouchy socks. The notion of how different Iniabasi’s life would have been had Abasiama raised her in the US is expressed in just these different clothing choices of the two half-sisters.

Loren: Yes! Other character-defining contrasts I noted: Adiagha’s heavy winter coat and woolly hat versus Iniabasi’s light jacket and bare ankles, underscoring how unprepared Iniabasi is for this new life, and the difference in Abasiama’s casual, comfortable, bright colors in Sojourners versus her very polished, sophisticated neutrals in Portmanteau.

Molly: Loren, what did you make of that overhanging light/projection piece? I thought it overpowered the interiors in both plays. It served well in the few instants where Iniabasi is standing at JFK but for the rest, it felt like an extraneous accessory. The video projections of water and cells in Sojourners really didn’t add meaning for me, but instead seemed very obvious (water=life=motherhood). The one question I was asked by a fellow audience member at the intermission was also about that part of the set. What were your thoughts?

Loren: I agree that projection screen/fixture felt both overpowering and underused–especially in a design that otherwise was filled with quite realistic domestic spaces, and where (as we’ve discussed) objects take on such significance. Given the importance of photographs, memories, and far-away family to both plays, it seems like there could have been a more substantive use of projections (but that might have felt intrusive given how intimate the plays are, I suppose). I kept waiting for a final effect that would make sense of the whole, but there didn’t seem to be one.   But maybe it’s unfair to expect any sort of concluding/sense-making moments, when these pieces are only a small slice of a larger project; the fragmented, partially satisfying resolutions raise as many questions as they answer, and that may be the intention.

Sojourners & Her Portmanteau at New York Theater Workshop Show Info

Directed by Ed Sylvanus Iskandar

Written by Mfoniso Udofia

Cast includes Jenny Jules, Lakisha Michelle May, Adepero Oduye, Chinasa Ogbuagu, Hubert Point-du Jour, Chinaza Uche

Running Time 4 hours, 15 minutes


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