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Editorial

Multi-Play Family Saga Explores Immigrant Experience

by Jean Schiffman

Magic Theatre presents two of the “big plays” of Nigerian-American playwright Mfoniso Udofia, who tells a story of immigration.

As Mfoniso Udofia began writing the saga of a family of Nigerian immigrants in America, she thought she was creating a trilogy. She hadn’t necessarily planned to be a playwright at all. In 2009, after getting an MFA in acting at American Conservatory Theater, Udofia was working onstage in New York. It was then that she started her first Ufot family play, “The Grove,” about a first-generation eldest daughter—and realized, after writing it, that she wanted to know more about the characters. So she went backwards in fictional time and wrote two more plays about the same family: “Sojourners” and “runboyrun,” set 30 years apart.

Then she found herself writing two more plays, “Her Portmanteau” and “In Old Age,” to complete the journey of the immigrant members of the family. Along the way, she refined them in residencies and workshops at places like Sundance and the Playwrights Realm, which premiered “Sojourners” earlier this year Off-Broadway.

Now, as Spring playwright-in-residence at San Francisco’s Magic Theatre, Udofia is working on the final four plays of what will be a nine-play cycle, focusing those final four on the first-generation American progeny of the Ufot family. At the same time, “Sojourners” and the world premiere of “runboyrun” play in repertory at the Magic.

“I didn’t plan a cycle,” confesses Udofia, herself a first-generation American, on the phone from New York. “Then the fuller the characters became, the bigger the work got.”

She knew from the start that she would be writing about an Ibibio family; her own family is Ibibio, which is a lesser-known cultural group than the main groups in Nigeria (the Hausa-Fulani, the Yoruba and the Igbo). She explains that the Ibibio share a “broad-stroke culture” with the other groups, but certain cultural differences, including language, do exist. “I have a real pride in my Ibibio people,” she says, “and I wanted to base the plays on people I know.”

Udofia grew up hearing her parents’ native tongue but not speaking it, so she worked with her mother and a translator/actor friend to write some of it into her script. “For me, Nigerians speak in a heightened way,” she says. “There is a real love of language…. The people I know are…super-educated people, who love and create in and around words. You get used to that kind of wordplay and find it fun.” Her African-born characters’ English is not only heightened but rhythmic and cadenced.

Udofia visited Nigeria when she was young and has memories of the land, remembers the feeling of life in a compound where you’re surrounded by family, but did comprehensive research to craft the plays: In addition to consulting family members, she watched documentaries and pored through books, examining the Nigerian movement and migration into America after decolonization; the
Biafran War (aka the Nigerian Civil War, 1967-70); the spiritual beliefs of her people, the look of the land itself. “I could probably parse some of the major differences in rhetoric [between leaders of various Nigerian political groups],” she says, “but I didn’t want that particular politic in the plays; I wanted to know it extensively and then forget what I knew and focus on the world and the human beings living within in it.”

The human beings in “Sojourners” and “runboyrun” are a complicated lot, composites of people she’s known or read about—she’s an avid reader of contemporary African literature—and refractions of herself. Her rigorous acting training guided her in building the multi-faceted characters (“I probably look like a crazy woman as I’m writing,” she says, “pattering out loud.”)

In “Sojourners,” set in 1978, Abasiama, a young, pregnant wife in an arranged marriage, is struggling to adjust to her new life as a university student in Houston (where Udofia was born) while also working in a gas station. She intends to get a degree and return to her native land to help rebuild it post-war. But her husband, Ukpong, has less lofty goals: He is obsessed with Motown music and wants to stay in America. Lonely Abasiama finds an unexpected friend in a young African-American prostitute, Moxie, and a potential soulmate in another university student from her own part of the world, the aspiring writer Disciple.

More than 30 years later, “runboyrun” finds Abasiama and Disciple living together in Massachusetts (where Udofia was raised), but in a disintegrating marriage: An unhinged, deeply traumatized Disciple, struggling to write, is haunted by all-too-visceral visions of his past, as a child during the Biafran War, protected by his beloved, much older sister and his tough and desperate mother. Udofia calls the play’s structure “spiral”—it’s set simultaneously in 1968 and 2014.

“Most of my plays are centered on big questions,” says Udofia. “‘In Sojourners,’ I was
very interested in how connection works and what loneliness does. Can you leave home to create and rebuild home? Can you leave Nigeria to [go to] America and then return and rebuild Nigeria? Can you leave yourself to find yourself?”

For “runboyrun,” she wonders if there is a point where love is exhausted: “In the heat of certain battles that are chronic and perpetual, how do you consistently choose love, and is that always right? Abasiama chooses to love a husband who is fractured—not of his own doing—but who causes pain. I wonder about that in women and men: When is enough enough? Is there ever an ‘enough’ that is bigger than love itself?” And, in trying to understand Disciple: “I wonder when and how does an initial breakage or damage heal, and if it doesn’t heal, when does it become a tradition you make for yourself [to] live over and over again?”

For Ryan Guzzo Purcell, who is directing “Sojourners,” an unfamiliar world has opened up. He immediately responded to the playwright’s voice, and thought of his own grandparents, who came to the U.S. from Italy. “It felt incredibly authentic… the specificity, the personal connection, the universality,” he says, on the phone from Seattle, where he is partly based while also directing in San Francisco. “How do we build a home that’s not the home we started in, negotiate old rules and new rules about how to behave, maintain relationships in the new world?” he continues. He has seen four of the plays in the Ufot cycle—in addition to “Sojourners”’ New York run, there have been workshop versions of the others—and observes that to unpack the complicated issues Udofia is addressing, which relate to race and being black in America and what it means to be born here but of two cultures, requires a full cycle of plays, and a variety of perspectives. The Ufot family plays are formally different from one another, yet, he says, “equally brilliant and poetic and beautiful.”

But, he adds, they are not sentimental. “We need to highlight this [in the acting and directing] because culturally there is a tendency to want to romanticize these narratives,” he explains—to see them as somehow “magical.” Rather, connecting to these characters enables us to think—in ways that are complex and nuanced—about what home and family mean.

“I write big plays,” agrees Udofia, “and I want them to go deep, dark and down as opposed to out and bright.” She trusts that both Purcell and longtime San Francisco actor/director Sean San Jose, who is directing “runboyrun,” understand
her aesthetic.

“Mfoniso speaks about a very specific piece of a broken legacy,” observes San Jose. As it was for Purcell, San Jose found Udofia’s world unfamiliar. “Reading about [Nigeria], you can get overwhelmed with the historical legacy of it, or of anything that deals with war and recent history,” he says. But he soon realized that what Udofia had written was deeply psychological as much as it is historical.
“It operates on so many levels,” he muses, “the psychological reality and the everyday reality… On one level, it’s a play about a marriage breaking up.” And although we see “runboyrun” mostly through Disciple’s eyes and ears, Udofia also depicts the women—wife, sister, mother—fully and strongly.

Of the Biafran War that figures in the Ufot cycle, Udofia says that in her family that war was not really talked about. “Now,” she says, “you’re seeing children and grandchildren of people who lived through those wars… searching to make sense of a history that feels distant but that changed the face of a people and a nation.” In striving herself to understand that war, she wondered how it has affected, in particular, the men as they moved and migrated, and how it has manifested within the home. The Nigeria to which Abasiama, in “Sojourners,” dreams of returning and rebuilding has changed, undergoing political upheaval, between 1978, when “Sojourners” ends, and 2014, when “runboyrun” begins. The lay of the American land is changing rapidly, too, notes Udofia. “The dream shifts.”

Sojourners

April 20 -- May 8

runboyrun

May 4 -- 15

Magic Theatre, Bldg. D, Fort Mason, San Francisco

(415) 441-8822/http://www.magictheatre.org/