The Nigerian Civil War ended in 1970. Forty years later, Disciple Ufot (Adrian Roberts) is still at war with himself. In the play runboyrun, Mfoniso Udofia explores the effects of that particular war on this man’s psyche. The result is a study in madness as buried trauma as the playwright attempts to dig up the root causes of Ufot's damaged mind.
runboyrun is part three of The Ufot Cycle, Udofia’s series of nine projected plays (four of which are complete). Sojourners, part one, opened in April to play in tandem with and as a companion piece to runboyrun. Each play in the cycle is meant to stand alone but part three is particularly resonant if you’ve seen Sojourners.
[jump] Two of the three main protagonists return in part three, but we’ve fast forwarded in time. At the end of part one, Abasiama has just given birth to her first child and then leaves her husband. Once vibrant and hopeful, we find her older self (Omoze Idehenre) in a depressed state of winter, hidden under a pile of blankets on the sofa. Disciple Ufot, who courted her when they were young, is now her estranged husband.
They live in the same house together where they’ve raised three children, but Ufot is somewhere else. The cycle is named after him for a reason. His divided soul generates a charred atmosphere in their home, and it’s suffocating for Aba. She can no longer reach Ufot, if she ever could. runboyrun begins at this crisis point in their marriage.
The play itself begins in the dark. A girl tells an African folktale about how the world formed from blackness. It’s a mythopoetic preamble that foreshadows Ufot’s fate. He too lives in darkness, one that’s populated with Nigerian shadows. Udofia brings those haunting African figures to life to share the stage with Aba and Ufot in the present day. This bifurcated stage is a potent way of giving life to a metaphor. The civil war in Africa runs parallel to and is the point of origin for the civil war in the house of Ufot.
The sound design in this one-act play evokes both exterior locations and interior states of mind. The soundtrack starts with African pop music and then employs a variety of subtle effects, like an eerie, creaking wind, to instill a sense of Ufot’s dislocation, or his location in two places at the same time.
What ultimately makes the production moving though is the company of actors. Rotimi Agbabiaka, who played bachelor Ufot in Sojourners, makes a remarkable transformation into a boy. It’s not only his costume, demeanor and posture that give this illusion but also his movements and expressions — his essence — are those of a child’s. Katherine Renee Turner also returns as the boy’s beloved sister and protector. She too appears to have aged in reverse as the innocent face of unconditional love.
Every actor here is committed to and wholly inside the imagined world of Mfoniso Udofia. She doesn’t provide much context for the Ufots during the first half of runboyrun, as if there’s an unspoken expectation that the audience will already be familiar with their story. You won’t be lost if you don’t see both plays but they echo and reverberate off of each other in meaningful ways.
If you’re patient, Udofia’s great strength here is to make narrative order out of the psychological chaos troubling the lives of her characters. She also realizes one of her stated goals with the cycle: to bring the complexities of African lives to the American stage. Udofia has mastered the art of leaving you hungry for more, while knowing exactly how and when to make a bold, dramatic ending.
runboyrun, at Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center, 2 Marina Boulevard, Building D, 415-441-8822.