by Marcina Zaccaria
At NYTW, where I last saw The Object Lesson, the entire theater was crowded with cardboard boxes. It’s a joy, instead, to sit in plush seats and appreciate Her Portmanteau from a distance in Mfoniso Udofia’s intriguing look at Nigerian immigration spanning over 30 years, beginning in the 1970s.
Sojourners and Her Portmanteau are part of The Ufot Cycle of family plays currently in repertory at New York Theatre Workshop. In Her Portmanteau, Iniabasi Ekpeyoung, played by Adepero Oduye, is found speaking in her native language on a pay phone. Shortly after, her sister Adiagha picks her up from the airport as they follow a turntable set of suitcases whirled in a circle, winding up at Adiagha’s small apartment in New York City. Iniabasi, thinking she was traveling to Massachusetts, is cool, annoyed and skeptical. After doing a quick walk through of the space, she questions why she has arrived in New York City. Her mother, Abasiama Ufot (Jenny Jules) arrives filled with apologies for not being at the airport to greet her. They eventually trade numerous stories.
Adepero Oduye’s performance, as the aloof traveler, is focused and strong. While it’s evident that she has courage, it’s obvious that she feels wronged. Standing her ground, she refuses to eat dinner. Her sister (played by Chinasha Ogbuagu) shows every sign of attempting to ameliorate this uncomfortable circumstance.
To define oneself in an uncertain world can be a difficult situation. As the women share stories about their men and their journey, the past is a slippery recollection. Time is tested.
Abasiama discovers pieces of fabric from Africa and pictures of family. Recognition of their faces gets her to a breaking point, and she is tearful. For the African mother, the images are staggering as she kneels downstage crying. Her cathartic journey is entirely felt and filled with great emotional impact. After this moment, Abasiama asks to hug her daughter Iniabasi. It’s a nice breakthrough textually and in performance.
Direction by Ed Sylvanus Iskandar is crisp. He has a great appreciation of language and culture. Costumes by Loren Shaw add authenticity.
While NYTW is a haven for experimental theater and cutting edge musical drama, Her Portmanteau feels epic. There is great detail from Scenic Designer Jason Sherwood and Projection Designer Jiyoun Chang, when the sky opens up with video images of photos. As Americans, in a media saturated culture, we forget the importance of image. Photos are the means of connection. In the world of Her Portmanteau, images remind us that memories of homeland can be felt in the smallest of rooms, and reflected in the greatest of skies.
Photos: Joan Marcus