Sojourners by playwright Mfoniso Udofia captures the story of a Nigerian family who has come to America. Their goal is to get their college degrees, have a baby and return to Nigeria. But during this process, which seems to be a straightforward plan, the husband becomes enamored with the American Dream. The play chronicles how this family is able to navigate the collision of culture and values and just what the American Dream really means. Mfoniso Udofia is a first Generation Nigerian-American storyteller, actress, and educator who has penned other great plays such as The Grove, runboyrun, and Lilyvine.
Chinasa Ogbuagu, Lakisha May, and Chinaza Uche all joined the production after doing workshops of the play. What seemed to draw them to the production was the idea that there were plenty of shows about African-Americans but less of Africans who live in America and what they bring to the culture.
For actress Lakisha May, who earned her MFA from the American Conservatory Theater and also holds a BA from Spelman College, it was simple. She loved the fight of her character ‘Moxie’ a prostitute from the south who was not content with her station in life. May was able to contrast her personal history as a descendant of slaves and being the first in her family to graduate from college with the struggles of her character. Said May of the character,
She is a young woman that’s really fighting. One of her lines states “Just because I was born this way doesn’t mean I intend on staying this way”. She is trying to get out of this situation. What can you do?
Chinasa Ogbuagu, a Nigerian-American actress brought a different perspective to the play. According to Ogbuagu Nigerian (Ebo) culture has informed much of who she is but when she travels to Nigeria she is also very aware of her ‘American-ness’. Culturally she was able to relate very well to her character.
School is important to the culture coupled with hard work which is the American dream… which came from immigrants..
For Chinaza Uche, the American dream has always been hard. The actor who holds a BFA from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts states simply,
The American Dream has been built to challenge you. It is a battle to define “Who am I?” Defining oneself is a huge part of participating in the American Dream.
The actors were asked about how working with Mfoniso Udofia, who is known for her mixture of poetry and prose on stage, challenged them. Said May,
There is a rhythm that is inherent in the work and while it may sound like the American South coming out of Moxie, it wasn’t easy. The play is truly language intensive. My classical training was indeed used to approach the character.I feel that as a result of this work, I can now do anything and I look forward to the next language intensive play.
May reflects that she is left feeling she can do anything and do it in her own voice.
I am super grateful to be in this space and do this work.
For Ogbuagu, a deep respect for the genius of Udofia shaped a powerful experience.
She is so smart and she has found a way to write an amazing beautiful story that is also educating people on an experience that they are not familiar with and how could they be? I appreciate her for that.
According to the cast, Udofia was a stickler for punctuation and slash marks to keep the rhythm a certain way and for them, it worked. Said Ogbuagu,
When you adhered to the punctuation as written it flows and starts to work in a way that makes alot of sense.
As Ogbuagu and Uche ran lines together after rehearsals, this wisdom became evident and they both shared humorous moments realizing that if the stopped trying to do it their way, the dialogue worked a lot better. The cast collectively gave off an aura of warmth and respect when describing their impressions of Udofia. The playwright was repeatedly described as compassionate and strong and most importantly that she came through for the actors. Ogbuagu says,
That for me as an actor is everything. It’s really lovely. It’s everything.
The cast erupts into laughter as Uche adds,
You can really see who Mfoniso is as a playwright when you look at the scenes of Moxie!
But truly, the compassion for the characters is huge. A great writer really takes care of the actor and she (Udofia) really does that by kind of telling us exactly what to do. There was always love and support to really develop what needed to happen. Yeah, she’s awesome.
The cast was also asked how director Ed Sylvanus Iskandar, who is Indonesian, added to the storytelling? According to Ogbuagu,
Ed has an immigrant experience of his own and while its not the same, he can understand some things and some things he had to learn too. He brought an amazing theatricality to this production and an elevation. Ed was able to come from a different experience and truly elevate the production. I loved that he did that.
Finally, the cast was asked what the wanted audience members to take away from Sojourners.
May stated audience members should reflect on the intersection of Africans and African Americans.
It’s an opportunity for these two groups who are connected by the diaspora to be in the same space and deal with the stereotypes that each have of one other. There is a class story that can be taken away regarding the American Dream, especially from Moxie’s perspective. The takeaway is that the American dream can’t always come in to fruition for everybody, particularly if you have brown skin.
Compassion and understanding of an experience different from your own. We are talking a lot about immigration with this election and a different understanding of immigrants; that not everybody who comes to this country and wants to take over. People also have homes that they love. People want to come and they want to have an experience here, but then a lot of people do want to be able to go and come. Yeah, just compassion and understanding of somebody else’s experience.
Uche sums it up by saying,
Compassion is close to the word dimension. There are so many people who we overlook and I think that one of the things this play does is that it shows that if these three immigrants and this Black prostitute can have lives that are so rich and each have so much going on and have their own personal dreams, how many other people are we judging too quickly in our real lives and how many other stories are we not hearing? This is one family’s story and its so rich and so beautiful! There are black holes in our history that we don’t talk about where people were doing important shit! People were living important lives and I hope people leave with thinking, I want to know more about other people that I don’t know about.
Mfoniso Udofia and cast have done a wonderful job with Sojourners. It is a fascinating new way of seeing the immigrant experience and a different look at how we can define the American dream. Sojourners runs thru February 13, 2016, at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater.
We Were There: Sojourners & Her Portmanteau
[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Playwright, educator, opera singer, and Queen, Mfoniso Udofia has two plays running at New York Theatre Workshop. *pause* TWO PLAYS. In the SAME season!?!? *ends congratulatory gasp* Sojourners and Her Portmanteau are performed in repertory, as two chapters of Udofia’s sweeping, nine-part saga, The Ufot Cycle. Admittedly, before researching each show, I didn’t know the definition of either word; and in the spirit of keeping it consistent with the honesty, I didn’t like either play. I loved them.
Minimalism seems to be the name of the game these days. I sat down to a completely black stage, sans a multimedia display lodged on the ceiling at a 45-degree angle. Clutching my all white program and bobbing my head to the ‘70s pop rock pre-show music, I prepared my heart for the story of Sojourners, well at least that was the plan. The stage begins to rotate and we meet Abasiama (Chinasa Ogbuagu) and Ukpong (Hubert Point-Du Jour), Nigerian expatriates sojourning in Houston, Texas with the plan to start a family, earn their degrees, and go back to Nigeria until life happens.
Charming and handsome, Ukpong becomes defined by his leather jacket, shoulder work and shimmy which match the fascination and yearning for freedom that illuminates his eyes every time he talks of peace, protest, and Prince–all shaping his view of 1970s America, and consequently, the American Dream. But does leather compensate for grit? Is a movement or vibe really a panacea for disappointment, aimlessness, and a need to find yourself? Abasiama enters the play pregnant, purposed, and outfitted in pieces of Nigerian garb, grounded in duty showing a stark contrast to Ukpong who floats in desire. What’s lost in your household is found elsewhere, and this is when we start to see, and root for, Abasiama’s transformation from timid to tenacious.
Enter Moxie (Lakisha May), a colorful prostitute turned protector and friend. There is a mutual respect despite great differences between her and Abasiama, with their love for one another creating moments that make you believe in the beauty of humanity. Enter Disciple (Chinaza Uche), another warm and determined hearted immigrant who has come to the United States to study, rounding out the timely additions of love, support, and security when Abasiama needed them the most.
Through and through this is Abasiama’s story and she glows. Her kindness, her sisterhood, her strength, her worthiness, and the realization of her American Dream, guide her decisions—which is the catalyst behind the entire Ufot Cycle.
Her “portmanteau”, or red suitcase, makes a return as 30 years have passed. Abasiama now has two daughters, one raised in America and the other who has come from Nigeria to reconnect with her family.
This is a good moment to mention that each story is informed by the other, but can certainly stand alone on substance, content, and the amazing direction of Ed Sylvanus Iskandar. The staging is exciting and deliberate, while minimal, putting the full focus on the tension and growth to be expected of a family reunited after a substantial amount of time and distance.
Chinasa Ogbuagu returns to the stage, this time as the American-born daughter, Adiagha Ufot, Adepero Oduye as Iniabasi Ekpeyoung (Ukpong and Abasiama’s daughter), and Jenny Jules as the mother, Abasiama Ufot.
Seated on a couch in Adiagha’s small New York Apartment, no amount of preparation readies your mind and spirit to form the words to make up for 30 years of life, connection, and memories missed. We’re taken on a ride of resentment, hurt, love, and forgiveness, as the portmanteau is literally unpacked. We watch the teeter-tottering between offense and defense as one sister tries to assimilate into American culture, and the other attempts, albeit stubbornly, to fall in formation in honoring a family she shares blood with, but little time or tangible history.
It’s powerful to see a story of history and continuing a legacy despite lost time, faulty promises, and difficult choices explored with an all-woman cast as far too often the idea of legacy is framed in patriarchy. Jules admirably takes Abasiama through the fire to heal, to feel, and to fix her family. The narrative allows us to empathize and understand the struggle that comes with upholding family values versus cultivating a space to achieve personal dreams and happiness.
Her Portmanteau (and Sojourners) is written in a way that finds your soul, gently massaging it with humor, while leaving it with very real questions. I’ve never felt a greater need to binge read nine stories and simultaneously study the story of my own family tree. I left changed. I left wrapped in the strength of my mom and my mom’s- mom’s sacrifice. I left pensive and with seeds of future forgiveness planted. I left changed.
For capturing our hearts with wit and with truth. For putting Black women at the center of a poignant narrative. For unapologetically telling a story you haven’t seen told and telling it in the way you want it to be told.
We thank you Mfoniso. We thank you.
Have you seen the #duetplays? Sound off in the comments below![/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]
Our Story in 2 Plays for 1 Price: Mfoniso Udofia’s Sojourners & Her Portmanteau
Last winter, we reported on Sojourners by playwright Mfoniso Udofia, a new play about a Nigerian family who has come to America with the goal of earning a college education, starting a family, and returning to Nigeria. But not without the twists and turns that come along with every plan that seems straightforward.
Thanks to New York Theatre Workshop, we get to relive this moment and continue the dialogue, decades later, with Her Portmanteau. Performed in repertory, these two chapters of Udofia’s sweeping, nine-part saga, The Ufot Cycle, chronicle the triumphs and losses of the tenacious matriarch of a Nigerian family.
Ed Sylvanus Iskandar directs the two-part story in association with The Playwrights Realm, who premiered Sojourners last winter in a limited engagement world premiere production. Her Portmanteau also received the 2016 Edgerton Foundation New Play Award grant.
As if that wasn’t enough to get excited about, we have an exclusive deal for our Broadway Black readers!
Our Story in 2 Plays for 1 Price!
Yes. That’s two shows for one price! The discount code BWYBLACK will take 50% off tickets to ANY performance(s) if purchased by May 15th!
Go ahead and grab your tickets. We have ours!
Sojourners and Her Portmanteau plays at NYTW until June 4th.