Ask Nigerian-American playwright, actress and educator Mfoniso Udofia what her first love is and she’ll tell you, to the surprise of many, “singing.” Surprising only because in the last decade, the American Conservatory Theater graduate has become renowned for several of her writing and philanthropic efforts, not her ingenue operatic vocal stylings. She is currently busy with her most recent work Sojourners, which opened Jan 21.
Abasiama came to America with high hopes—for her arranged marriage and for her future—intent on earning a degree and returning to Nigeria. But when her husband is seduced by America, she must choose between the Nigerian and the American dream.
Still, Broadway Black got the chance to sit down with Udofia and discuss why she took a break from singing, how she defines her work, and what exactly is “Nigeria-dar.”
Broadway Black (BB): You’re just like…a master of everything!
Mfoniso Udofia (MU): Oh, my mother is like ‘Be careful Mfoniso, don’t become a jack of all trades and master of none!’ Because I did, I liked to dabble!
BB: What’s the last incredible show you saw?
MU: I just saw The Color Purple and Cynthia Erivo… it’s like my Nigeria-dar went off! She was so good, like incandescent. From this little body came this gorgeous, gorgeous voice. The Color Purple itself, by Alice Walker, the book tore me up. The movie destroyed me. Then watching it… I think I forgot how deep the story was and the type of healing that story demands. Alice Walker is a beast. Reading her canon is good for the Black body.
BB: So did seeing Color Purple inspire you at all [to want to return to acting/singing]?
MU: For a hot HOT second! But I don’t sing like that, and that was a big thing when I was auditioning. I think people want me to sound a very particular way, because of what I look like. So it’s gonna demand a breaking of our gaze which sometimes is easy and sometimes is not.
BB: There’s been a lot of talk about the white gaze over the different productions. What would you say to someone who is trying to work under what we might veil as a “white gaze?”
MU: Having the uncomfortable conversations, in the beginning, is important and right at the start dismantling privilege. I do think that is something that Playwrights Realm was wonderful working with me going, ‘Listen, the play I’m writing right now, the gaze from which I’m writing it is not the gaze that most western theatergoers might understand and I am not interested in changing the internal heartbeat that way’ and I was actually listened to. But, you can’t make an assumption that you are understood. I push from the beginning so that in the middle when I’m pushing it can’t be like ‘Oh, I didn’t know this might be coming one day.’ I’m pretty upfront.
BB: What is unique to you and your storytelling?
MU: I make sound. It’s poetry, really. I may break the form of what feels like spoken word. My father was giving me narratives to read when I was young and I think I started thinking in poetry and it’s leaked into my writing. I love it because it confounds itself. The line will play on six different levels. The way poetry and prose fuse…
BB: If you had to give it a name…?
MU: If I had to give it a name… [You can hear her struggling to create the vocabulary for her art] You’re asking me to create on the spot, you’re watching the creative mist [she laughs]…. It is “true north.” My poetry is the container in Sojourners and is true north in Run Boy Run.
BB: What do you want your audience to take away from Sojourners?
MU: I want them to have critical sight into what the African-Nigerian body actually is. How certain immigrants might have come here to build a life. Especially since now, we’re having really interesting conversations on immigrants and there’s a particular sense of phobia in certain pockets, so to really understand what it’s like. I want audiences to understand that the WAY immigrants come into this country, they’re varied, there might not even be a desire to stay, and that building within the Amerian dream is a particular crisis. I hope this play complicates the idea of the American Dream and makes us understand that when immigrants are coming in they’re coming in with their own dreams and will become a fuel for the American Dream.
Also, I do hope people start to grapple with the African body vis-à-vis the African American body and we start to build language and see where connections fail and where connections can be made between those two communities.
On the set of #Sojourners today with playwright @mfudofia! Tonight the first preview for her stellar new play happens at @playwrightsrealm! This off-Broadway play is a dynamic debut for a playwright who is bound to have many more produced! Can’t wait to share all of what we talked about today. Look for it on BroadwayBlack.com! #BroadwayBlack