New York Times
By Diep Tran
May 31, 2017
Mfoniso Udofia, the author of what is envisioned as a series of nine plays, “The Ufot Cycle.” Frances F. Denny for The New York Times
After moving to New York City nearly a decade ago, Mfoniso Udofia began to ask herself some hard questions: “Who am I?” and “What does it mean to be both African and American?” She was a recent graduate of the master’s program at American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, but the four to five auditions a week she was going to weren’t resulting in work. As the daughter of Nigerian immigrants, she found it puzzling to be repeatedly told that she wasn’t “African enough.”
“I wasn’t right because somebody else had a different image in their head of what an African woman is supposed to look like, or be,” Ms. Udofia, 33, said, adding that this image was tied to someone “skinnier.”
But those hard questions pushed her to write her first play: “The Grove,” about a Nigerian-American named Adiagha who tries to reconcile her American upbringing with her Nigerian heritage. That spawned a prequel with Adiagha’s mother called “Sojourners,” then another play, and then another. “It just started spiraling as I became more and more fascinated with the characters,” Ms. Udofia said.
That spiraling wound itself into “The Ufot Cycle,” a planned series of nine plays looking at the history of Nigerian immigration in America through the eyes of one family. Two of the plays, “Sojourners” and “Her Portmanteau,” have had their runs in repertory at New York Theater Workshop extended through June 11. (The Playwrights Realm, where “Sojourners” had its premiere, helped finance the run.) It’s a one-two punch of storytelling, and it’s a feat because when Ms. Udofia began writing those stories, she didn’t know if they would ever be produced.
“I was hoping people would read and take interest,” she said. “But it just felt important to know that somewhere in the world, this thing existed.”
From left, Lakisha Michelle May, Chinasa Ogbuagu and Chinaza Uche in “Sojourners” at New York Theater Workshop. Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
The reception has been positive. In The New York Times, Jesse Green called the two plays “extraordinary” and “stunningly acted.” Taken together, he wrote, they “offer a moving and powerful corrective to the notion that what immigrants leave behind is always awful, and that what they find is always worth the trip.”
“Sojourners” takes place in 1978 and is about a young Nigerian couple, Abasiama and her husband, Ukpong, who immigrate to Houston to attend college. “Her Portmanteau” is set more than 30 years later, and sees Abasiama now with two daughters: Adiagha, raised in America, and Iniabasi, raised in Nigeria. It’s a sprawling series, moving between the United States and Nigeria, and also across time and space.
The plays’ director, Ed Sylvanus Iskandar, describes them as “Ibsen cross-pollinated with the Marvel cinematic universe.”
“It’s the same level of demand — every prop onstage has a story that will pay off as a part of the plot,” Mr. Iskandar said. “Every incidental action in the play has a way to pay off.”
Ms. Udofia didn’t plan to be a playwright. Her parents immigrated to Houston in the 1970s. Like the characters in “Sojourners,” Ms. Udofia’s mother was a microbiologist and her father was a scholar of West African studies. “That’s quite a few of the Nigerians that I know, they were coming here to explicitly study and leave,” she said. “And quite a few decided to stay.” Ms. Udofia’s parents eventually had three children and settled in Southbridge, Mass.
Jenny Jules and Chinasa Ogbuagu in “Her Portmanteau” at New York Theater Workshop. Sara Krulwich/The New York Times
At Wellesley College, Ms. Udofia pursued a political science degree and had planned to be a lawyer. But she dabbled in the arts; she had attended Broadway shows and played trombone in high school. In college, she was classically trained in opera and performed in plays put on by Ethos, the black student union at Wellesley. “That’s when I bumped that career, that was kind of given to me, against myself, and I made a different choice,” she said.
When she began auditioning for roles in New York, Ms. Udofia noticed that Americans spoke about Africa as if it were a monolith. “Africa is not a country,” she said. “It is a continent. In Nigeria alone, there’s 500 different languages. There’s so many people, and that one impression you had of Africa does not fit all of those people.”
War stories like Danai Gurira’s “Eclipsed,” which played on Broadway last year, are but a small slice of the African narrative. By writing “The Ufot Cycle,” Ms. Udofia is determined to show the nuances within African immigrant experiences — that the continent isn’t tragic and its people aren’t “broken.” And it seems she has succeeded. For Chinasa Ogbuagu, a child of Nigerian immigrants who plays Abasiama in “Sojourners” and Adiagha in “Her Portmanteau,” those plays mark the first time she has seen herself and her family’s story represented onstage.
“When I tell people I’m Nigerian, they ask: ‘Oh my god, what is it like over there? Is it all dust, mud, and sadness?’” Ms. Ogbuagu said. “I’m like, ‘No, we used to go swimming in my uncle’s country club!’”
Ms. Ogbuagu emphasized the importance of audiences’ being able to witness “this narrative of an immigrant that has a house, and is coming from a place that they love, just going somewhere else for another sort of opportunity, and not escaping something horrible.”
While writing the “Ufot” plays, Ms. Udofia borrowed from her family’s history. But she maintains that the works are not autobiographical. “There are bits and pieces that are extraordinarily, personally close,” she said. “And there are huge bits and pieces that I make up.” For example, similarly to Adiagha in “Her Portmanteau,” Ms. Udofia has a half sister who lives in Nigeria, though they are not estranged the way the characters in the play are (“In my heart, she is my sister”).
“That is also a classic immigrant story,” she said, “where you come here to create and live, and what you had to do to survive sometimes splits and divides a family.”
Even though the plays are specifically about Nigerian immigrants, with unsubtitled Ibibio dialogue, the themes are universal. To James Nicola, the artistic director of New York Theater Workshop, the plays are a reminder that most Americans share a common origin story.
“I can’t tell you how many times, working on these plays over the last year or so, where I heard echoes of things that my immigrant grandparents, either on the Irish side or Italian side, expressed or mentioned in some ways,” he said. “The endless questions of leaving the culture that you’re familiar with, and arriving in a very different one that you don’t know much about. And how much do you try to fit in and how much do you try to preserve who you are, and how much you pass along for your children and grandchildren.”
To Ms. Udofia, the themes within her plays are especially crucial now, as immigration becomes a contentious issue around the world and immigrants are vilified by some politicians. “Immigrants built America,” she said. “Everyone, once they’ve come in, has had a hand in building this place, no matter how they came in. So what is the amnesia that makes us forget that?”
While building empathy is important to Ms. Udofia, as she continues to work on the rest of the “Ufot” plays, she is also unapologetic about the fact that she isn’t writing the cycle for a traditional theater audience. She has written five of the nine plays, and three of them have been produced. (“Runboyrun” was mounted in San Francisco last year, and a reading of another, “In Old Age,” is planned in July in Portland, Ore.) But if the plays result in a wider appeal, then all the better.
“I’m writing them for myself,” Ms. Udofia said. “I’m writing them for my immediate family. I am writing them for my extended family. I am writing them for the Ibibio community.” In short, she added, “I’m writing us so we can see us.”
A version of this article appears in print on June 4, 2017, on Page AR13 of the New York edition with the headline: Nine Plays, One Truth: We Share a Beginning.
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