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.
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