Acclaimed playwright Mfoniso Udofia did not set out to write plays, let alone to write an ambitious nine-play cycle that spans decades and chronicles multiple generations of a single family.
The 34-year-old American Conservatory Theater MFA graduate did very little writing while taking acting classes and getting her degree at ACT, and during her undergrad years at Wellesley she was initially more focused on becoming a lawyer.
"I had an incredible dean who asked me one day what I did for 'joy,' and that got me started singing," Udofia tells SFist. Singing in college got her involved with theater, and eventually her dreams of going to a top-tier law school were scrapped, and acting took over.
But acting proved to be a frustrating path after leaving the comforts of school and moving to New York, which ultimately led her to writing a play that was loosely based on her own family and her Nigerian mother's immigrant experience. "It was hard for me to book a job, and the writing was a way to help process the world I was in," Udofia says.
As she discussed in a 2017 interview with the New York Times, she would go out for roles calling for an African actress, and she would be told by casting agents that she didn't look "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," Udofia said.
The conundrum got her thinking about her own family's unique path, and her own duality feeling both American and African, being a first-generation Nigerian-American.
"A person like me who comes from two cultures exists because of immigrant parents who made this decision, the decision to pick up and move to another country and leave behind a whole other life, and I became fascinated with exploring that decision," Udofia says.
The result was her first play about the Ufot family, The Grove. The play centers on a young Nigerian-American woman named Adiagha who feels split between dual identities. That was followed by a prequel, titled Sojourners, which is loosely based on her biochemist mother's decision to immigrate to Houston in 1978 to attend college.
The "Ufot Cycle" has proven to be as much a specific tale about African immigrants who don't fit Americans' common notion about immigrants, as it has about universal themes about family traumas, unspoken pains, and strained bonds.
ACT just wrapped up a production of Her Portmanteau on Sunday, which is play number four in the cycle. (See SFist's review here.) The three-woman play tells the story of Adiagha and her mother, Abasiama, as they greet Adiagha's half-sister Iniabasi who is moving to the US from Nigeria as an adult. The conflict arises over Iniabasi's strained relationship to her mother, her mother's inability to take her into her own home with a second husband in Massachusetts, and Adiagha's inability to understand her half-sister's experience because they grew up in such different circumstances.
Opening in its world premiere Wednesday night at the Magic Theater, and already in previews, is play number five in the cycle, In Old Age. The play centers on Abasiama, in her older age, meeting handyman Azell Abernathy, whom she hires to fix the floors in her dilapidated Massachusetts home. The two forge a bond after initially clashing.
"I wanted to explore the entire scope of a life," Udofia says, saying that with In Old Age, she completes something of an entire life story for Abasiama.
Adia and Clora Snatch Joy, the ninth and final play in the cycle, is the next that Udofia has written — plays six through eight remain untitled and unwritten. In the final play, Adiagha finds love with Clora, the daughter of her mother's friend, Azell, and the two build a life together.
Udofia says the nine-play structure happened because after writing about the first-generation experience in The Grove, she became "fascinated by the protagonist's parents. I started thinking what is it that makes a human being get up and move to another country and start a second life. It isn’t always political or economic strife — what is it that makes a person decide to build this whole other existence in a new place?"
With the Ufot family, Udofia says she is also trying to answer the question, "What is it to be black in America when you don’t have the typical ancestral slave narrative that most black people here have?"
She also says that coming from a collectivist culture in Nigeria, everyone is far more aware of their lineage. "In my culture you actually count where you're from, you hold it," Udofia says in an interview with ACT's Words on Plays. "You come from a compound culture. You know your grandparents, you know the history of your great-grandparents, and your great-great [grandparents], which is very, very, very different somehow than what I find happening [in the US]."
Udofia says she's thrilled to be able to see the two productions of Her Portmanteau and In Old Age side by side in San Francisco this season, and she says the experience of seeing the latter in rehearsals has helped her in refining the play and catching continuity mistakes. Also, she says, "It’s fascinating to see what of my work drags across the plays. Seeing Abassiama across time — what is fascinating for me, is watching how, when I do my job right, there’s a little bit of emotional drag —seeing how a character ages. It doesn’t stop. The people don’t stop growing. Thinking about what happens after the curtain goes down — that's been really informative for the writing."
Eventually, she says, she hopes that some theater with the infrastructure to make it work will be able, just once, to perform all nine plays in repertory. "I've already been thinking about body doublings that can happen, with the same actor playing multiple roles across the plays." That may end up being the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, where Udofia is currently working on a commission: an adaptation of Shakespeare's Othello.
She's also currently working in Los Angeles in the writers' room of a TV show she can't yet talk about. More on that, I'm sure, is to come.
In Old Age plays through April 21 at the Magic, and you can find tickets here.