|Eunice Woods & Kimberly Scott|
“In God’s time, my Iniabasi, hello.”
First translating her daughter’s Nigerian name into English before saying the name in its native language, Abasiama welcomes a daughter whom she has not seen in over two decades to the New York apartment of another daughter, Adiaha, half-sister to the arrival. But the stone-faced, statuesque Abasiama – tightly clutching her small, red suitcase and her purse against her yellow slicker – is not ready to be welcomed into a world and a family she still clearly sees as foreign. “In God’s time,” that may change in the course of Mfoniso Udofia’s ninety-minute play, Her Portmanteau; but first much has to be unpacked and sorted out between mother and daughters/sisters – items that have been tucked away where questions could not be asked and answers could not be given for many years.
American Conservatory Theatre presents the fourth of Mfoniso Udofia’s planned nine-play journey of this Nigerian family, two of the first three, Sojourners and runboyrun, produced in 2016 by Magic Theatre. Three performers – stunning in every respect – ensure an evening tense and gripping, poignant and emotionally charged from beginning to end.
Things are maddening, confusing, and even frightening for Iniabasi from the moment she steps off the plane at JFK. Not the least is because she thought she was going to be arriving in Boston and because her mother told her she would be there to meet her, which she was not. When a young woman finally arrives calling her name as Iniabasi is trying to make calls at an outdoor public phone bank, Iniabasi is more frightened than ever. She in no way recognizes the thirty-year-old sister she has not seen since the girl was eight (and who looks much fatter than the more recent-pictures she has of her).
|Eunice Woods & Aneisa Hicks|
Once the two arrive at Adiaha’s cozy, Manhattan apartment, Iniabasi refuses to do much more than barely enter — remaining silent, sullen, and in a state of apparent shock. Until her mother finally also arrives, the younger sister does all she can to be cheerful in non-stop, increasingly frantic attempts to be a welcoming host while Iniabasi refuses to look at her and barely responds. When she also refuses to eat the afang soup and fufu that Adiaha has made especially for her, Iniabasi asks (in a paraphrased version), ‘I came all the way here to New York to eat what I could have eaten at home?’ As the guest does begin to make comments about her sister’s surroundings (none too complimentary), she also makes requests and asks questions of her arrived mother that go awkwardly unanswered, with telling looks between the mother and younger daughter.
The air of tension and unease continues with occasional outbursts of frustration and even anger erupting from each and all of the three. Questions by Iniabasi emerge that point to hurts long festering. Inquiries about a son whom a grandmother has never met at first lead to blank-faced dead ends. Two husbands and two different fathers come into the conversation from time to time, with no one ready to peel off the onionskin to discuss the real issues about both that are causing invisible yet impenetrable walls to remain in place in the room.
Until the red portmanteau that Iniabasi has brought is inadvertently opened – a red, leather luggage that opens into two halves – the room is largely at a standstill. Just as the word “portmanteau” also means ‘a word blending the sounds and combining the meanings of two other words,’ inside this portmanteau lies a way for for two cultures – American and Nigerian – and two halves of a family – one with a father named Ufot and one with a father named Disciple – to find a way of possible reconciliation, forgiveness, and maybe even blending.
Each of the three actors in this family drama brings her own trunk load of incredible acting skills and sensitivities to her role. As the younger sister and host, Adiaha, Aneisa Hicks nervously tries to attend to a visitor who shows no signs of wanting to be there and a mother who is clearly worried but only wants to act like all is normal. Her Adiaha does have her own limits of patience and also has her own, unspoken trials and tribulations (like a recent relationship break-up and a father who is mentally insane). But Adiaha has a spark in her to find ways to overcome, including a propensity for breaking glass.
As Iniabasi, Eunice Woods is stunning in her ability to control reactions and emotions outwardly while all the time laying bear for all to see the internal fears and furies she is feeling through her staring eyes, her taut mouth, and a posture so tight she looks as if she might suddenly break into a million pieces. When she does begin to open up, the wide range of pent-up and genuine emotions expressed are shown in ways as varied as subtle, quick smiles she probably hopes no one notices to outbursts of tears that rip apart one’s own insides to watch.
Likewise, Kimberly Scott’s Abasiama’s own eventual, emotional reckoning with her past is so powerful that one almost wants to look away, hoping to give her the privacy she needs and deserves in order to come to grips with all that is going on inside for her. Before that climatic moment, we see a mother who has love for two daughters that are still worlds apart and who also has many questions and doubts if and how she and they can really become one family. But there is always a hope and a determination in this mother’s singular presence, particularly because she knows the day of her returning daughter’s arrival is a Sunday. As she says, “Sundays are our best day; best days don’t just come; you make them.”
As director, Victor Malana Maog takes a masterful script and a to-die-for cast and adds touches that make the story and all its many emotional components so much more tangible and impactful. Particularly powerful is his use of silence — moments when we can take in the aftermath of a difficult confrontation or a surprise revelation or we can anticipate the inevitable next eruption that is clearly bubbling to the surface.
All occurs in an apartment that is so present, we feel we are sitting there with the family. Indeed, David Israel Reynoso’s designed apartment along with Jacquelyn Scott’s myriad of props gives us a home as real as any we can imagine, with the smells of scented candles and cooked soup wafting our way and everything from art pieces to a variety of colorful cushions to crockery on shelves that beg us to pause and notice. Yael Lubetzky’s lighting design illuminates and shadows the home in natural ways while the sound design of Jake Rodriguez blends the strong-beat drums and brass music of Nigeria with the daily sounds of a New York apartment to present his own “portmanteau” statement. Finally, Sarita Fellows choice of costumes also remind us of the stark differences in climate between these two countries, reflecting the pervading divides in climate within the family itself.
Mfoniso Udofia’s “Ufot Family Cycle,” of which Her Portmanteau
is yet another chapter, in an intergenerational exploration of two cultures and two nationalities that the playwright has been quoted as saying, “I am Nigerian; I am American; I will not choose.” American Conservatory Theatre’s production is one more slice of a story where the next generation – a grandson – becomes a key to a choice not having to be made between the two cultures. Its beautiful and engaging telling only makes us as an audience all the more anticipatory for the next chapter to arrive in the form of Mfoniso Udofia’s In Old Age,showing at Magic Theatre, March 27 – April 21.
Rating: 5 E
Her Portmanteaucontinues through March 31, 2019 at American Conservatory Theater’s Strand Theater, 1127 Market Street. Tickets are available in person at the Geary Theatre Box Office, 405 Geary Street Monday – Friday 10 a.m. – 6 p.m. and 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday or at the Strand Box Office Monday – Friday 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. (or curtain). Tickets are also available at 415-749-2228 and online at www.act-sf.org.
Photos by Kevin Berne
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