Ukpong and Abasiama are far from their Nigerian homeland. They have settled in a working class suburb of 1970s Texas for an American education. Ukpong is studying economics; Aba, biology. They are in the first stages of an arranged marriage, circling around each other like familiar acquaintances, testing boundaries and trying on their respective roles as husband and wife. In Sojourners, the playwright Mfoniso Udofia complicates this couple’s domestic life further: Aba is in the late stages of her first pregnancy.
As the play opens, Udofia introduces Aba to the audience by placing her at the front of the stage. She clutches her full belly and soothes the irregular, if persistent, shoots of pain. Katherine Turner as Abasiama makes those sudden spasms feel real. It was a risk to open the play this way — to shine a spotlight on a pregnant woman in pain — to force our sympathy with such easy manipulation (who doesn't feel sympathetic toward a woman's pregnant aches and pains?). But the actress has fully imagined the interior life of her character with care and intelligence. Turner instantly convinces us that Aba may also be suffering from something more than prenatal contractions.
Enter Jarrod Smith as her feckless husband Ukpong. Smith beams a 1,000 watt smile that radiates well beyond the last row of seats. Ukpong, adrift and indifferent to his studies, distracts his lonely wife with his natural electricity. We have all met this man before, utterly reliant on his good looks and charm, Ukpong is unable to rally any of his inner resources to focus on a path to adulthood. The imminent arrival of a child is, instead, driving him away from his paternal responsibility and back to his adolescent longing for the idea of endless fun.
This plot summary may make the play sound rote or overly familiar — another unhappy marriage — but everything about this production of Sojourners is vividly imagined, and then realized on stage. The set design allows for the clever introduction of supporting characters, and their soon to be intersecting storylines. It’s minimal yet suggestive of the era. An aqua colored stove and refrigerator stare down the earth-toned plaid couch: they appear to be as ill-matched as the couple who uses them. Even the lighting design manages to serve both plot and character, and it does so beautifully.
Udofia has provided each character with at least one monologue. During one of Ufot’s — another Nigerian immigrant who meets Aba by chance — his giant shadow gets cast against the back wall behind him. It’s an inventive way to suggest the presence of his mysterious soul and to inform the audience of things yet to be revealed. Rotimi Agbabiaka endows Ufot with the necessary oddness that transforms a character on a page into a living being, a person entirely unto himself. When Ufot is active on stage, Agbabiaka bends the atmosphere around him. It’s as full-bodied and compelling a performance as that of his co-stars.
Sojourners is the first in what will be nine plays, known as The Ufot Cycle, about the family that Ukpong and Abasiama begin together. By the end of the second act, Aba has given birth. It’s easy to imagine that child will become the playwright herself, and that the pregnancy becomes a metaphor for the start of this cycle of plays. Udofia has conjured up a family uprooted by the noise of history and politics. When she ends this play with a cliffhanger, it’s maddening that there’s no binge watching button to push. Thankfully, the wait for Udofia's second collaboration with the Magic Theatre (part three) won’t be long: runboyrun begins on April 28.
Sojourners, at Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center, 2 Marina Boulevard, Building D, 415-441-8822.