Runboyrun and In Old Age, by Mfoniso Udofia, a master at wordplay, capture the power of letting go of the past. The two plays are part of Udofia’s nine-part cycle that focuses on several generations of Nigerian immigrants who have settled in America. In Runboyrun and In Old Age, a catharsis occurs when the truth is revealed, and characters meet this new feeling with both hope and sadness.
In Runboyrun, expertly directed by Loretta Greco, Disciple Ufot (performed by Chiké Johnson with the perfect mix of intensity and naiveté) comes home to his wife, Abasiama (the highly physical Patrice Johnson Chevannes), who is cocooned under a pile of blankets. The house is cold, but she also looks like she’s hiding out. When Disciple opens all the windows to release the “energy,” she says “you cannot tell me what’s wrong with this house is simply the weather.”
The play takes place in 2012 in a large house in Worcester, Mass., and in 1968 in Nigeria during the Biafran War. Andre Boyce’s clever set incorporates these dual realities into one. The house in Worcester is indicated by a large couch that sits center stage, and the area below stage level looks like a basement room where Disciple spends most of his time. The African plain is suggested by barren trees that loom around the periphery of the stage.
Disciple, a middle-aged teacher of African history, has had some complaints about his hygiene. Soon, it becomes clear that he is struggling with unseen demons from his childhood in Nigeria during the Biafran war, in which many people were displaced and starved to death. Disciple was traumatized by a series of events with lingering consequences.
Disciple’s tics and rituals become intensified as he ages. At one point, as memories take over, he sits mute and unresponsive to Abasiama as events from the past unfold. He watches as his mother (Zenzi Williams) gives a pep talk to his brother Benjamin (Adesola Osakalumi) whose leg and arm are broken and wears an eye patch, his sister (Adrianna Mitchell), and his younger self (Karl Green), about surviving the war. Oona Curley’s lighting beautifully carves out space for these overlapping tableaux.
Abasiama is fed up and says she wants a divorce, but then she tries a new tactic and asks him to tell her everything. They sit entwined in each other’s legs and, in the telling, the mood lightens and Abasiama gets up and starts to dance. “Remember,” she says. And here remembering is of something good, something ameliorating and joyful.
In Old Age picks up years later and is funnier at times, but also slower. Abasiama is alone and once again moored on her couch under several layers of blankets. Disciple is dead, but he haunts the house, making noises. David Van Tiegham’s music and sound design are so effective that, over time, they get under the skin, and the desire for an exorcism is strong. Abasiama, however, seems at peace with them until a knock on the door forces her out of her cocoon.
Azell Abernathy (Ron Canada), a churchgoing man, has been sent by her daughter to fix the floors. Abasiama does everything in her power to get rid of him, but he says he has strict orders to stay and do the work. Abasiama wants him to take his shoes off when he comes into the house. There is a tug-of-war, and Azell says he can’t work on construction without his boots. This prompts Abasiama to get a bucket of water so he can wash his shoes before he enters the house. The metaphor of the bucket of water for the cleansing of these two, both spiritually and physically, is not lost.
Azell presents himself as a God-fearing do-gooder, but Abasiama senses skeletons in his closet. “What kind of man are you?” she demands. It’s a provocation, and he responds with comic darkness: “I got a burning to see what my hand look like, right now, on the left side of your neck.” He continually works to abate these feelings and centers himself with deep breaths, self-talk, and little pleas directed skyward.
Over time, they grow used to each other, and he hums along to the spirituals that Abasiama listens to around the clock and that he initially found so irritating. When she falls in love with the cherrywood floor that Azell is going to lay, she stomps on the floor and chants repeatedly, “This is good for me.” He asks, “How come you talk to floors?” and kneels down to tell the floor, “God bless this woman.” Finally, the knocking and noises stop. The desired exorcism happens, but with change also comes sadness. There is a suggestion that even a bad thing can become part of you and, without it, who are you?
Runboyrun and In Old Age run through Oct. 13 at New York Theatre Workshop ( 79 East 4th St., between the Bowery and Second Avenue). They are presented together, with a 15-minute intermission; each is 90 minutes. Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 8 p.m. Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Saturday and at 1 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets are $69 and may be purchased by visiting the box office or going online to nytw.org.