Sojourners and Her Portmanteau, in repertory at the New York Theatre Workshop, want to be heard. Mfoniso Udofia’s plays, conceived of as part of a nine-play multigenerational chronicle (of which five have been written) of the Nigerian-American Ufot family, saunter from moment to moment, expanding each dramatic beat to examine it with microscopic curiosity. Though the result, as shaped by director Ed Sylvanus Iskandar and dramaturg Janice Paran, is often excruciatingly dry, the plays demand a witnessing of their American immigrants’ stories.
Sojourners, the first play in the cycle, explores the motives behind a wave of Nigerian immigration to the United States in the 1970s. It centers on young university couple Abasiama (Chinasa Ogbuagu), Ama for short, and Ukpong (Hubert Point-Du Jour), living in Houston. Ama, who was raised on a bustling compound back home and is pregnant with the couple’s first baby, also works nights in addition to carrying her course load, while happy-go-lucky Ukpong spends his days sloughing off class and attending political rallies.
When Ama makes an unsettling discovery about Ukpong’s enrollment status and meets Disciple Ufot (Chinaza Uche) after going into labor, Ama makes choices that dramatically alter the family’s future and bear fruit in Her Portmanteau, set 30 years later, when her daughter, Iniabasi (Adepero Oduye) confronts Ama for those choices.
The clearest recent theatrical precedent for Udofia’s family epic is August Wilson’s “Century Cycle,” which weaves characters and their progeny throughout its 10 plays and covers the entire 20th century, but intergenerational trauma has long been drama’s bread and butter. It’s rare in mainstream American theater, though, to place women front and center from play to play, let alone women of color. That is slowly changing; the Ufot plays ride the crest of a long-overdue but still grossly insufficient wave of stories by and about women of color in theater, film, and television.
The plays’ micro-drama needs a lively staging to offset its sedateness, but Iskandar has gone in the opposite direction, favoring placid scene changes in quasi-tableau as the stage rotates, and long, wordless stretches between dialogue. With only two scene changes, Her Portmanteau suffers less from this inertia, yet the early scenes that make those changes necessary are superfluous. Iniabasi picks up her red luggage from a carousel then meets her half-sister, Adiagha (Ogbuagu again), before heading for Adiagha’s apartment. The line of red bags makes a nice symbolic point about the number of similar immigrant stories that play out every day in this country, but delays the beginning of the story and necessitates a comically loud backstage scene change that feels lifted directly from Act III of Noises Off! as the intrepid crew builds the apartment set where the rest of the play will take place.
The scripts could equally benefit from a trim. Sojourner’s early scenes in Ama and Ukpong’s apartment simply repeat what we already know about them. The dramatic stagnation echoes the languor of their precarious situation, but makes for torpid drama. Similarly, near the end of Her Portmanteau, Ama narrates her thoughts as she rifles through Iniabasi’s luggage, then explains her motives using the exact same language when she is caught. The effect is one of deadening explicatory repetition just when the play needs an injection of mystery.
By placing these two plays in conversation with each other, Udofia has created a world rich in echoes and ghosts; the spelling out of these connections robs them of their thematic heft, but can’t diminish the scope of Udofia’s ambition. The old bottles of American theater are clearly past their expiration date, and for all these plays’ limitations, it is thrilling to watch a dynamic American voice bring the new wine of marginalized voices to the stage, much of it in non-subtitled Ibibio, the characters' mother tongue. More, please.
Mfoniso Udofia’s Sojourners and Her Portmanteau play through June 11 at New York Theatre Workshop (79 E. 4th St.). Sojourners plays Tuesdays and Saturdays at 7 p.m., Thursdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 1 p.m. Her Portmanteau plays Wednesdays at 7 p.m., Fridays at 8 p.m., Saturdays at 4 p.m., and Sundays at 5 p.m. There is a between-show meal available for purchase on Saturdays and Sundays. For tickets and information, visit nytw.org.