“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.” (Tran, NYTimes) Playwright Mfoniso Udofia wrote a play about the immigrant experience, Nigerian newlyweds who have come to America to further their education. But her story isn’t one that isolates, but instead highlights the gaps here in America. The land of opportunity? For some, for others it is an institutionalized racism, poverty, and class. These people are trying to better themselves in a place where you can be anything, but you have to create it all yourself.
The play is about a young couple, Abasiama (Ama Brown) and Ukpong Ekpeyong (Kenyon Parson) who were in a sort of arranged marriage back in Nigeria. They have come to Houston in 1978 to seek their degrees and get an education. They intend to return to Nigeria better, wiser, and with a baby in tow. Ama is very pregnant, working nights in a seedy convenience store/gas station, and studying Biology. Her husband, Ukpong, is more entranced with his newfound freedoms than his actual education and studies. He drifts in and out, with a beer in one hand, and records in the other, leaving Ama to her own devices. She befriends a prostitute named Moxie (Jenelle Brown) and catches the interest of fellow Nigerian immigrant Disciple (Grant Emerson Harvey). She has the baby, and needs to make some decisions about her life and its current path.
Playwright Udofia has created several plays (nine I think in total?) that are part of the “Ufot Cycle.” They follow the characters and relatives that begin in this play and spiral and span to Nigeria and back. This is her first work, and it is beautifully written. Some of the words are powerfully lyrical, but it is a bit stagnant. The actors don’t move much, they sit and wax poetic about life. The relationships and story are complicated, but also don’t fully get resolved in the end (unless you see the other plays). This makes the viewing a bit odd. It is fascinating, but spends a bit of time in the stationary.
The play is held together nicely by the amazing Ama Brown. Her role as Abasiama, also nicknamed Ama (what a coincidence!) is breathtaking. Her profound sighs, her heaving and carrying of her over-large belly, her side eyes at those around her, make her so wonderful to watch. You end up laughing at her antics, feeling her sorrow and pain, and reeling from her painful decisions in the end. Ama is so phenomenal, I don’t have words to describe how painstakingly perfectly devised she is in this role, and sharing a name with the character, she was almost born to play this. She looked like she had suffered fools her whole life, and needs a break from all their shit. She looked like the kind of woman I want to sit in a coffee shop with and laugh and talk the afternoon away.
Her husband, Kenyon Parson (and real life husband as well- wow this cast is almost autobiographical), is charming and lost. And he does a nice job of being, well, flaky. There were several times I too (along with Ama) didn’t want to hear his excuses. He dances and weaves his way through life assuming it will all work out, even if he has no idea how. And like his wife, I too felt the “ain’t nobody got time for that.”
Moxie Wilis (Jenelle Brown) stumbles in to the gas station one night to ask for an application. She is wise-cracking, full of herself, and downright hilarious to watch. I don’t know how many times she took on and off those shoes, but she was working it. She talks a good game, threatening those who endanger her friends, trying to better herself, but stuck in a rut. It is unclear how she got to her current state, she claims no parentage, no address; but she cannot get out due to one large hindering factor- her illiteracy. Jenelle does a fantastic job of blending all the opposites that encompass this character; fiercely loyal yet unable to walk away; ambitious and determined yet scared.
Disciple (Grant Emerson Harvey) is the hardest character to follow. He begins the play by being a voice in the upper corner at a typewriter who drops facts about Nigerian Immigration in between scenes. He appears to be writing a paper, but it takes some time to include him in the action, and bring him down from on high, to mingle with the other characters. His “voice” as he reads the facts seems to be the playwright contextualizing and offering historical basis for her fictional account. He is the foil character to Ukpong- where Upkong is impulsive and reckless; Disciple is a man of God with a plan and wants to find a spiritual partner to go along. He finds Ama- 9 months pregnant and BFF’s with a wisecracking gal who he doesn’t take to immediately. His intentions seem genuine, but it is hard to believe that he becomes so engrossed with her so quickly. There is love at first sight I guess; I am just an old crow who tends to be doubtful.
The set is simple but effective by Gabriella Castillo. The “window” Ama sits in as she works was confusing. I did not think it was a gas station/convenience store until I read things online describing it as such. Perhaps some graffiti or other additional items would make it seem more gritty and destitute? The hospital and apartment were more whole- and firmly fleshed out. The light design by Amy Rhodes is simple and effective. Cheryl J. Williams is the director and keeps the action tight and moving forward. I have not read the script, so I assume there is little to be done with the static nature of the actors in their habitats. But Williams does a great job of making the characters pop and engage so thoroughly, it does distract from the fact that they haven’t moved for awhile.
Williams pulls double duty as the sound designer as well. Since Ukpong is obsessed with music, I expected a bit more infusion of that music. There were times (especially pre-show) where it was dead quiet and I felt like it was almost an awkward silence. A bit of musical interlude would have filled some of that “dead air” nicely.
The play encapsulates the American experience for immigrants. A timely piece of theater with the national political discourse taking place right now over immigration rights, walls, and America’s role. The deviant paths some take to reach their own is nicely showcased here in the fractured lives of several people all trying to elevate themselves. The story at the center is heart wrenching to watch, as the play says, “you will never taste this kind of loneliness.” No, some of us won’t, but watching Ama go through it is enough to flesh it out for me.
SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO? Go! The Strand is back and doing what they are best at- showcasing a female playwright’s work with passion and care. They are always on the cutting edge of timely plays that enter our community’s conversation of current events. This story is not everyone’s story- we are not all immigrants, we are not all Nigerian, we are not all confined- but it is moving, pivotal, passionate, and relevant. It is worth a post show drink and discussion. And it is damn fine theater to boot. (I)
Running time just over two hours with one intermission. Running at The Strand through March 10th.