At 35, Mfoniso Udofia has already proven herself a playwright of great ambition and force, having written more than half of a nine-play cycle on the Nigerian-American experience of one family.
The Wellesley College and American Conservatory Theater (ACT) MFA program graduate was profiled in 2017 by the New York Times when two of her plays in what's titled "The Ufot Cycle" were playing in repertory at New York Theater Workshop. And she said that part of the inspiration for writing the first play she wrote in the cycle, which is actually the second in chronology, was in order to reconcile her own experience being a first-generation American born to Nigerian parents — and going on auditions during acting school where she was told she wasn't "African enough."
Udofia says that the nine-play structure grew organically as she thought beyond that first play, The Grove, and the prequel she subsequently wrote, Sojourners. She says she began thinking about the generations that came before and after, and in Her Portmanteau, we see these generations of the Ufot family intersect on one specific winter evening in New York.
ACT produced Her Portmanteau — which is currently running at The Strand theater on Market Street through the end of the month — as part of this first season curated by new company artistic director Pam MacKinnon, and it is perhaps a good standalone piece in which to be dropped into the middle of this family's story. It is play #4 in the cycle, and SF's Magic Theatre is presenting play #5, In Old Age, beginning on March 27. (Plays 6 through 8 haven't been written yet.)
The story centers on a mother, Abasiama (Kimberly Scott), and two daughters who were raised on different continents, Adiaha (Aneisa Hicks) and Iniabasi (Eunice Woods). Adiaha, like the playwright, was raised in America and only visited Nigeria once as a small girl. Iniabasi was raised by her father in Nigeria after her mother essentially gave her up as an infant, deciding to divorce her father and marry another man. The play takes place as Iniabasi is arriving in the US for the first time with plans to settle here, with her mother. But the action all occurs in Adiaha's New York City apartment, because of family complications that prevent her from being able to go straight to her mother's house.
The drama, which unfolds in a tight 90 minutes (no intermission), is wrenching and urgent. Udofia has built a story filled with many relatable family tensions — half-siblings who resent one another, a commanding mother who dislikes shows of emotion, a family kept apart in part because of financial limitations. There are also unspoken tensions that cleverly hover around and above the three-person interaction we see — Adiaha is a lesbian, and this is only barely hinted at here though her romantic relationships are central to other plays in the series; and we only ever barely hear the voice of Abasiama's husband, Disciple, over the phone, and he figures into the other plays as well.
Scott is a marvel to watch as the tightly wound Abasiama, and both Hicks and Woods give terrific performances as well — with Woods pulling off the most complex emotional transitions with great restraint.
Her Portmanteau is unique in its use of language — Udofia says she isn't interested in writing a play about Nigerian-Americans entirely in English, so there are moments in the play when the characters speak in Ibibio, one of 520 languages spoken in Nigeria, without subtitles or translation. The play is unique too in the way Udofia manages to telescope her story from something sweeping about an entire nation of people, to something painfully intimate, in a remarkably short span of stage time. Without a doubt, Udofia succeeds in bringing the vastly different worlds of Nigeria and America into a single room.
Her Portmanteau plays through March 31 at The Strand. Find tickets here.