Sometimes, the circumstances of a play don't need to be completely obvious in order to tell a captivating story. Such is the case with Mfoniso Udofia's Sojourners, a world premiere from Playwrights Realm (at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater) that cleverly draws the viewer into its mystery. By the end, you'll be hooked.
It is 1978 and Abasiama (Chinasa Ogbuagu) and Ukpong (Hubert Point-Du Jour) are a young Nigerian couple in Houston, Texas. Even though she is eight months' pregnant and studying hard for her biology degree, Abasiama works at a gas station to support the family. Ukpong doesn't work, but he does occasionally disappear for several days, returning with Motown records and beer that he has purchased with Abasiama's hard-earned money. Abasiama gives birth during one of Ukpong's walkabouts, leaving her in the care of Moxie (Lakisha Michelle May), a young prostitute who happened to be filling out a job application at the gas station. Although a complete stranger, Abasiama's countryman, Disciple (Chinaza Uche), happens upon the two women and decides to accompany them to the hospital. He thinks this is a meeting ordained by God. Moxie thinks he is a creep and wishes he would go away. Throughout, Udofia paints a captivating portrait of an irresistible patriarchy in which men abandon their wives for wanderlust and other men arrive to plant a flag in them — with the women ambivalently accepting everything.
We tend to lump together all immigrants from a certain country, but Udofia subtly exposes fault lines of class, gender, and upbringing when it comes to Nigerian-Americans: Ukpong clearly has the family resources to dawdle (and fail) through his American adventure. By contrast, the less-well-off Disciple behaves like Cortés burning his ships on the Aztec coast: He has no other option but to conquer. Even though she's from a prosperous family, Abasiama worries what it will mean if she (the first of her family to study in America) returns to Nigeria with no degree. Through sensitive prose delivered in memorable performances, these sojourners seem real, their specific anxieties achingly familiar.
Point-Du Jour is charming and sexy as Ukpong. At first, we cannot understand Abasiama's coldness toward him…until we get to know him better. The opposite is true for Moxie, who makes an extremely unpleasant first impression, but then wins us over. May naturally embodies the sharp-tongued hooker with a heart of gold, marching across the stage like she owns it. At one point, costume designer Loren Shaw audaciously outfits her in just a large sweater (no bottom), which May wears as if she is modeling the latest Versace dress.
His wild eyes peering from behind wire-rimmed glasses, Uche gives a performance befitting his character's name. His Disciple smiles through religious spasms and conversations with the spirit realm. He has a speech pattern that is simultaneously halting and deliberate, recalling Jeff Goldblum. When he waves his hand around Moxie's job application, he sends chills down our spines, making us believe that his magic is real.
Ogbuagu's performance is far more grounded, even world-weary, making Abasiama the most relatable character in the play. Her droopy eyelids speak of a lifetime of survival around charismatic and disappointing men.
While the characters are crystal clear, the circumstances bringing them together are murkier. We know that Ukpong and Abasiama's marriage was arranged, but what is the relationship between their two families? How did Massachusetts-born Moxie end up walking the streets of Houston? How did Disciple scrounge enough cash to get a visa to study in the states? Key pieces of the story seem to be missing, lost to the fog of memory. Or perhaps they are still hiding, poised to reveal themselves in later installments (Sojourners is the first part of a multi-play cycle).
Ed Sylvanus Iskandar (famous for his intimate extravaganzas at the Flea Theater) re-creates the emotional truth (and factual unreliability) of memory onstage, directing the piece with a cinematic flair. Much of this is facilitated by scenic designer Jason Sherwood's rotating set and sound designer Jeremy S. Bloom's vintage soundtrack. Smokey Robinson's "Shop Around" plays as the stage spins, showing us several overlapping scenes: Ukpong joyously fritters away his student visa, Disciple madly hacks at the typewriter, and the far more sullen Abasiama puts on her uniform for a day of work at the gas station. "Welcome to Fiesta," she shouts with a forced cheer.
With clear-eyed determination, Udofia has penned an immigrant's tale that is neither triumphal (like the wildly popular Hamilton) nor a complete refutation of the American Dream (like nearly every play by Eugene O'Neill). Rather, it is something distinctly more honest about the tradeoffs and sacrifices one makes to settle in a new land. Since this is only the first part of a larger series, I can't wait to see what this country has in store for Abasiama and her budding family.