The blood running through Iniabasi’s (Eunice Woods) veins has turned to ice. She’s been apart from her mother Abasiama (Kimberly Scott) for 30 years, a separation that has stiffened her spine. Her mouth, caught in a perpetual frown, conveys a lifetime of disappointment. While living in Nigeria with her father, Ukpong, Iniabasi has become a distrustful and brittle woman. The playwright Mfoniso Udofia arranges a mother-and-daughter reunion in Her Portmanteau (at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater through March 31) and it doesn’t get off to a good start.
Iniabasi spends the better part of the play silent, angry, or silently angry. Udofia hasn’t written a mother-daughter melodrama like Mike Leigh’s film Secrets and Lies, in which the narrative tension depends upon shocking revelations. Here, Abasiama and Iniabasi have corresponded with each other over the years. Iniabasi knows that her mother stayed in America to finish her education and then remarried someone who felt hostile toward a child from her first marriage. But knowing that fact didn’t fix the problem that her mother was inaccessible.
At times, Iniabasi speaks in the Ibibio language. As a theatrical strategy, it’s challenging to present to an audience a character who’s uncommunicative or speaking in an unfamiliar language. But Udofia is purposeful in her approach, to show her character’s emotional and linguistic isolation. For Iniabasi, these are the long-term consequences of not having had a mother. The playwright is even-handed, though. Her Portmanteau concerns itself with what reconciliation looks like when every family member feels hurt. Not only do we see how Abasiama has suffered from their estrangement but we also see how it has affected her other daughter Adiaha (Aneisa Hicks).
When Iniabasi arrives at the wintry New York airport with her suitcase, she’s expecting her mother to pick her up. But Abasiama has been delayed, so Adiaha shows up in her place. Instead of being appreciative or grateful, this last-minute change infuriates Iniabasi. The tearful reunion scene at the airport is yet another expectation that’s been thwarted, in a long line of them. After all these decades apart, she’s flown across the ocean to see her mother only to be greeted by her younger sister instead. Resentment and envy flash out of Iniabasi’s eyes when she sees Adiaha, the American daughter who had their mother’s full attention.
Adiaha serves as a corrective to her sister’s idealization of the American life she feels she’s missed out on. She tries to accommodate Iniabasi’s position, to tolerate her hostility, her criticisms, and demands — but soon reaches her limits. It’s Adiaha, not their guilt-ridden mother, who must disabuse Iniabasi of the idea that America has been a land of endless opportunity. They return to Adiaha’s one-bedroom apartment, but Iniabasi was expecting to stay in Boston with her mother. She doesn’t know that Abasiama’s husband Ufot won’t allow it (or isn’t psychologically well enough to do so). In Nigeria, Iniabasi has been spared from her mother’s troubled second marriage, but she hasn’t imagined the obstacles it’s presented for her. (Udofia wrote about them in a companion play, runboyrun, which ran at the Magic Theatre in 2016 and represents the third in her Udot Cycle, a planned series of nine plays. Another, In Old Age, will also have a run at the Magic beginning on March 27.) To have afforded the plane ticket from Africa, Abasiama must have set aside money for years. When Adiaha mentions the exact price of the car she rented to pick her up, it starts to dawn on Iniabasi that her American family isn’t living on easy street.
Abasiama has had a pragmatic response to the trauma of being separated from her daughter. She goes to work, tends to her children, husband, and household. After being scolded and rebuffed by Iniabasi, Adiaha takes her sister for a walk so their mother can compose herself. While they’re gone, she notices that Iniabasi’s suitcase is the same one she emigrated to the United States with in the 1970s. When Abasiama opens it, she’s overwhelmed with the memory of the choice she had to make when she was a young woman. She hasn’t been a callous mother, but she’s kept that Pandora’s Box shut while her first-born lived far away on a distant, unreachable continent.
Her Portmanteau, through March 31, at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater, 1127 Market St. $30-$85; 415-749-2228, or act-sf.org.