The African Dream, in Mfoniso Udofia’s America

Two plays in her "Ufot Family Cycle" make their Bay Area premieres this season, showing the Nigerian Civil War through one clan’s experience.

Can the Nigerian dream work within the American paradigm? That’s the question that prompted Mfoniso Udofia to write her first play, Sojourners. She tells the story of Ukpong and Abasiama’s arranged marriage as they settle into their new life far away from their homeland in 1970s Texas. In 2016, the Magic Theatre produced it along with Udofia’s runboyrun, which addressed, the playwright says, “the making of Black African men after war.” It’s the third work in a series of plays — some finished, some yet to be written — which are part of the Ufot Family Cycle. Each is as rewarding to watch as the experience of reading an episodic novel that’s impossible to put down. At the end of each one, Udofia withholds just enough information to make you wonder what happens to this family as the decades go by.

Two more of her plays in the cycle will answer some of those questions as they make their Bay Area debuts. A.C.T. presents Her Portmanteau in February, followed by the world premiere of In Old Age at the Magic Theatre at Fort Mason in March.

“In a weird way, Her Portmanteau is the inversion of Sojourners,” Udofia says. “This play is going to ask, ‘Is the American dream itself the destroyer of the African family?’ ” Without giving away too much, the baby Abasiama gives up in Sojourners returns from Lagos to find her, and her American-born sister, two decades later. In Old Age pursues a different, yet related line of inquiry.

Abasiama hires Azell to repair the floors in her home. Udofia has one question for each of these characters. “What is redemption after you have been an abuser? That is for Azell. And, what do you need to let go of and hold again if you were abused, in order to love? And that’s for Abasiama.” Although In Old Age is the fifth installment of the cycle, Udofia assures me that it doesn’t matter in which order you see the plays. “When I started writing the cycle, I knew that there would be an origin story, and that’s Sojourners, play No. 1,” she says. “From there, it gets non-linear and it’s meant to be a jigsaw puzzle of sorts.”

If you see Sojourners and runboyrun, you’d be following the paternal line as embodied by Disciple Ufot. If Sojourners and Her Portmanteau, you’d see the maternal line through Abasiama’s experiences. “Then, when you start stacking it together, you get exactly what America has been doing to this family over the course of time, and really understand what it is to make a family here,” Udofia explains. One of the great strengths of her writing is the way she balances didacticism with dramatization. We learn about the Nigerian Civil War (1967-70), but as the lived-in experience of this family and not as a history lesson.

Udofia identifies herself as an ardent researcher who has studied at length what immigrants have to give up in order to make a life here. She’s looked into places like Little Senegal in New York, where immigrants have built an enclave, as well as immigrants who, after a couple of generations, are an organic part of the American Dream. But she doesn’t bring her books and articles with her when she sits down to write. She does the research and then forgets. “I also know these people. I know the kneecap of that person. I know the nose of that person,” she says. “The research just helps me understand what’s been happening in front of my eyes, as opposed to the research being the propulsion for which I’m writing.”

Her Portmanteau­, Feb. 15-Mar. 31, at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater, 1127 Market St. $25-$90; 415-749-2228, or act-sf.org.

In Old Age, Mar. 27-April 21, at Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center, 2 Marina Boulevard, Building D, $15-$65; 415-441-8822, or magictheatre.org.

Five Other Theatrical Events We’re Excited About

American Hero
March 7–April 6, Custom Made Theatre Co.
Bess Wohl’s workplace comedy set in a sandwich shop follows her play Small Mouth Sounds, which made a silent meditation retreat both funny and enlightening.

A White Girl’s Guide to International Terrorism
Feb. 6–March 2, SF Playhouse, sfplayhouse.org
Chelsea Marcantel’s play, set on the post-9/11 Gulf Coast of Louisiana, involves a protagonist who may have found a dangerous way out of poverty (and her part-time job at the Dairy Freeze).

Overlooked Latinas
Feb. 16 – March 3, Brava Theater Center Studio, brava.org
Tina D’Elia describes her solo show as “a good queer telenovela bedroom farce” about butch dyke Angel and the femme fatale who’s putting her marriage in peril.

Transfers
Feb. 28–March 23, Crowded Fire Theater, crowdedfire.org
Would you stretch the truth about your academic accomplishments to get accepted into a prestigious college? Lucy Thurber offers that moral predicament to two students from the Bronx.

Actually
Opens Mar. 8, Aurora Theatre Company, auroratheatre.org
“If you don’t remember giving it, does sex become assault?” playwright Anna Ziegler asks, in a sexual misconduct hearing after two freshmen spend a drunken night together. 

 

Read more from SF Weekly’s Winter Arts issue:

Still Squicky After All These Years, 1980’s Grimiest Movie Is Coming to the Drafthouse
William Lustig’s Maniac arrives at the Alamo Drafthouse New Mission on Tuesday, Jan. 29.

Expressions of Exuberance: Michael Light’s Aerial Desert Photography
Hosfelt Gallery’s “Michael Light: Great Basin Autoglyphs and Pleistoseas” is nothing short of transfixing.

Columbine Author Dave Cullen Sees Hope in Parkland
The esteemed reporter returns with a new book focused on a group of students who refused to let others tell their story.

Meet Adia Victoria, Blues’ Heiress Apparent
In one of the most male-dominated genres in the rock pantheon, she knows how to establish the mood.

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