Sojourners & Her Portmanteau

Theater, Drama
2 out of 5 stars

Time Out says

2 out of 5 stars

Theater review by Helen Shaw

The best thing about the pair of clumsy family dramas now at New York Theater Workshop, a selection from Mfoniso Udofia's generation-spanning Ufot Cycle, is the extraordinarily graceful performer they both revolve around. In Sojourners, set in the 1970s, Chinasa Ogbuagu plays Abasiama Ekpeyoung, a heavily pregnant Nigerian student pursuing both a Texan biology degree and her feckless husband Ukpong (Hubert Point-Du Jour); in Her Portmanteau, Ogbuagu becomes Adiagha Ufot, Abasiama's thirtysomething U.S.-born daughter and patient moral heir. Over the course of both pieces, you'll spend three and half hours watching Ogbuagu endure the indignities heaped on her characters. You'll also spend that time wondering at her deftness as she manages, again and again, to make these two muddled plays occasionally cohere.

Despite the rockiness of Udofia’s repertory “duet,” as the Workshop calls them, there is promise here. The playwright has a delicate ear for dialogue, and a teasing scene of Ukpong and Abasiama dancing in their living room is the kind of work that builds careers. But such poignant moments battle with unwieldy monologues and theatrical clichés, like the hooker with a heart of gold in Sojourners or the suitcase full of secrets in Her Portmanteau.

The shows' best hope would be to lean hard on the texts' virtues by emphasizing their well-woven textures. Yet director Ed Sylvanus Iskandar makes choice after choice to unstring the actors from the plays' essential realism. He undercuts what's best about Udofia's writing and reveals its structural flaws: Jason Sherwood's deep-black turntable set throws the cast into an ill-conceived Beckettian void, and Iskandar positions the actors at the lip of the stage as though they were villains in a melodrama. Amid this stark nothingness, most of the performers shout or posture. Only Ogbuagu truly seems to inhabit the women she plays. As she moves almost delicately across the stage, she seems like a real person tip-toeing through pantomime productions about her life.

New York Theater Workshop (Off Broadway). By Mfoniso Udofia. Directed by Ed Sylvanus Iskandar. With Chinasa Ogbuagu. Running times: Sojourners 2hrs 40mins; one intermission. Her Portmanteau 1hr 45mins; no intermission. Through June 4.

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