A Nigerian-American Family Tells Its Story in Runboyrun and In Old Age
New York Theatre Workshop mounts two new installments of Mfoniso Udofia's Ufot Cycle.
Don't leave after the first half! Audiences at New York Theatre Workshop might be tempted to bail after the first of two new installments of Mfoniso Udofia's nine-part Ufot Cycle, chronicling four generations of a Nigerian-American family. And admittedly, runboyrun (so styled) is a slog of a family drama, but it builds essential foundation for the second show of the night, In Old Age, which proves to be one of the most spiritually satisfying plays I've ever witnessed. Judging from the family tree inserted in the program, the Ufots thrive in America — but that doesn't mean there isn't rot at the base.
When we last encountered the Ufots, we got to know central character Abasiama as both a young woman (Sojourners) and as the matriarch of a family that sprawls across borders (Her Portmanteau). Like those previous installments, runboyrun and In Old Age aren't successive chapters, but their pairing proves to be shrewd as we come to understand how the choices one makes in the heat of the moment reverberate for decades to come.
Runboyrun depicts Abasiama (Patrice Johnson Chevannes) and her husband, Disciple (an unhinged Chiké Johnson) in their Worcester, Massachusetts, home in January 2012. Fed up with Disciple's emotional abuse, Abasiama vows to divorce him, but she has second thoughts when he reveals a long-held secret.
The play flashes between 2012 Massachusetts and 1968 Biafra, a short-lived breakaway republic from Nigeria. Bathed in sepia (well-targeted lighting by Oona Curley), a mother (a fearsome Zenzi Williams) prepares her boy (Karl Green) and his sister (Adrianna Michell) for battle. Their older brother, Benjamin (a heartbreaking Adesola Osakalumi), has already experienced the war, and limps on a heavily bandaged leg. "That is what happened to me," he explains at the end of an extended monologue, "upon crossing uncertain roads."
Much of runboyrun is delivered through lengthy monologues, which can make for a laborious watch. We see and hear the effort both the actors and the playwright have put into striking exactly the right tone in this dark drama about a civil war most Americans have heard little, if anything, about. Even with the bombs and chaos of war bursting all around us (jarring lighting by Curley and sound by David Van Tieghem), director Loretta Greco never successfully conveys the stakes of the play as Disciple exhumes his long-buried trauma in the safety of his basement lair.
That man cave becomes a mausoleum for In Old Age, which takes place 25 years later (a 15-minute intermission in theater time). Abasiama lives alone, curled in a nest of blankets on her couch, above a basement full of her dead husband's belongings. She is haunted by Disciple's ghost, which makes itself known through loud knocking that only she can hear, and which she tries to drown out with the blare of religious programing on her ancient television set (Van Tieghem's sound design is like a third character, and that character is a real jerk). But when Abasiama's children hire contractor Azell Abernathy (the hilarious Ron Canada) to make renovations to the house, she has to choose between living in a past designed by the deceased, or building a future that — for the first time — is truly hers.
Awoye Timpo buoyantly directs In Old Age, retaining all of the designers from the first half. Andrew Boyce's set for the Worcester house remains mostly unchanged between the two halves, showing just what a time capsule Abasiama inhabits.
The banter between Azell and Abasiama is funny and fresh, allowing us to laugh for the first time all evening. The dialogue is just so charming and witty that we suspect we are witnessing a December-December rom-com — but of course, Udofia is way too smart of a playwright to give us the expected.
The standout performance of the evening comes from Chevannes, who is the only actor to appear in both plays (not that this is immediately apparent). She ages so convincingly during the intermission (incredible work by hair and makeup designer J. Jared Janas) that I spent the second half convinced that I was watching another actor. Abasiama's mannerisms remain, but Chevannes gives us a sense of how they have evolved into her present, fearful, shriveled state. She huffs and puffs so much through a later physical scene that I felt exhausted for her. I also felt her relief when her efforts pay off.
Your patience will pay off, too, if you stay for all three hours and 20 minutes of this double bill. Even if its individual parts are uneven, The Ufot Cycle is one of the most ambitious and exciting dramatic works currently being crafted for the American stage.