Mfoniso Udofia’s new play Her Portmanteau opened at 4 p.m. on April 22 at New York Theatre Workshop. Three hours later, a new production of her play Sojourners opened on the same stage. The plays are meant to be seen in tandem, as they’re part of an epic nine-play cycle about Nigerian immigrants and their American-born children that Udofia is creating. (They run in rep through June 4.)
“I am first generation, and I have one foot in one world and one foot in another,” says Udofia. Sojourners, set in the 1970s, examines the struggles of newcomers Abasiama Ekpeyoung and Disciple Ufot, while Her Portmanteau explores the dynamic years later among Abasiama and her daughters.
Udofia studied political science at Wellesley College and earned an MFA from American Conservatory Theater. She started out as an actor but decided there weren’t enough rewarding parts for someone like her, so she set out to write them. Udofia, who also plays jazz trombone, sings opera, and is a self-described “hip-hop head,” also is currently teaching both at Harlem Children’s Zone and SUNY Purchase while working on the sixth play of her unfolding Ufot Cycle, which to date includes Sojourners (a.k.a. “the Origin Story”), The Grove, runboyrun, Her Portmanteau, and In Old Age.
Are you spending time tweaking Sojourners, or are you more focused on Her Portmanteau since it’s new?
They’re both getting some love. On Sojourners I’m doing micro-work, so things are shifting, but nothing structural. Her Portmanteau underwent some tectonic shifts. That was a commission with the National Black Theater, but it now has a different frame completely. I just turned in the edits for that three days ago and I’m learning on my feet how I feel about my new edits.
What’s the difference for audiences if they come to Sojourners or Her Portmanteau first?
The lenses are different. The plays have to stand on their own, so that’s one layer. But if you see Sojourners first it should be a fuller story—you’d understand why Abasiama* is cagey in Her Portmanteau. There’s meta-thinking when I’m writing, though, because if you see Her Portmanteau first you might be sitting there saying, “Mama, do better,” without understanding the history of why right now she can’t. And then you’d see Sojourners and you’d probably reassess a lot of your preliminary feelings.
Do you go back to shows you’ve already written to make adjustments once a new play in the cycle is done?
I’m constantly looking to see where there are continuity errors, where I need to embed a little weight for a character. I don’t have to go back and redefine the character, but I will go back and look at The Grove and say, “Oh, that’s an interesting color I found here in this new one, so I’ll add a little pepper of that there.” It’s really fine, nuanced work.
Have you changed as a playwright over the course of the cycle?
My earlier work is definitely more florid. You can see the difference between Sojourners, the second play I wrote, and Her Portmanteau, the fourth. I’m getting blunter as I go, and some of the plays are now deeply discomfiting, which I think is good. I’ve also crystallized what I love to write about: very strong female protagonists, matriarchs, and legacy, and what is duty and what is desire.
When I go back to a play like Sojourners I’m careful about making changes, so who I am as writer now does not get put into the play—I can’t get so far away from the impulse that led to the play itself. Sometimes I am slower on a note for Sojourners because I am weighing what it does and how it will shift the tone of the play.
Does your training as an actor influence your writing?
I write for actors the way I like to play as an actor, which can be infuriating to some. I liked to explore and I did not like a straight path, because that’s not quite human. Sojourners is the worst with this; you can read it eight different ways, but only one of those ways works, other ways it’ll sag or won’t feel right. So my plays have extensive notes beforehand where I explain that you’ll find a place you want to stay because it’s fair to middling but it feels good, and that won’t work. I’ve been very involved in each production—soon directors will be saying, “I can’t shake this woman.” At some point I’m going to have to fool-proof my plays.
How did studying political science at Wellesley influence your writing?
I focused on the underdevelopment of Third World countries, and I thought I was going to get my Ph.D. and talk about the African invisibility, so what the plays do is fuse a very technical academic learning with how that plays out on human bodies. During the plays themselves, most of the time I edge away from teaching. These plays would have been paired with the academic essay that unpacks the history behind the play.
There’s a paucity of immigrants and first-generation Americans on U.S. stages; are you conscious of that when you’re writing?
I’m very conscious of it, because part of the reason I started writing was because I didn’t see enough of it. When there were opportunities for me as an actor they were really exotic, poverty porn, Africa-in-a petri-dish, let’s-watch-cry-a-little-send-some-dollars-go home-and-get-on-with-my-life shows. I wanted to see variants of what I knew, so I did start writing from there. I just started writing about the people and the stories and I knew that would fulfill the rage from which I started writing.
You’ve been working on these plays since 2009. But immigration, which is always in the headlines, is now a bigger issue than ever. Do you feel that changes the impact of your plays?
It is more potent now. For me it has always been potent; my body is always thinking about those things. But it is particularly salient now, just watching our nation regress, watching how everyone is saying, “Wait, no”—people who never thought about this—so it is changing the way these plays are being looked at.
Do you feel like you’ll never finish, that you’ll just keep going back for more?
I started out writing one play and then it became three and then five, and now it’s nine plays. The first five plays follow Abasiama and Disciple, and that is its own little thing. I was looking specifically at what it is to be an African immigrant, a Nigerian, coming to make a life here in America. With the next four, they follow the kids and I’m looking at what it is to be a first-generation black body that’s finding out how to be in this country. They will not deal with mothers and fathers, except the last one draws from them and is about the legacy. I’m writing them out of order. Adia and Clora Snatch Joy is the ninth play, but I’m writing it now so I can complete the thing. That was a conscious decision. I need to end it.
If I come back 20 years from now will you be writing about the children’s children?
No! No! It has to be nine, period. This is the longest I’ve kept to a number so I think I’ve got it. But maybe if you come back I’ll be on play 4,532, and you’ll ask, “How are you feeling?” And I’ll say, “Weary.”
New York City-based journalist Stuart Miller writes regularly for American Theatre and AmericanTheatre.org.
*A previous version of this story misspelled this character’s name. It is Abasiama, not Abysannia.