|Katherine Turner as Abasiama|
In the mid-to-late 1960s, the neighborhoods and streets of urban America were too often in flames with lives and property destroyed as African Americans protested white America’s prejudiced resistance to their voting and economic rights. An ocean and a world away, Nigerian Africans were at the same time engulfed in a horrific civil war that resulted in pogroms, massacres, and devastating famine. A decade later, Mfoniso Udofia brings four members of these two worlds together in the southern city of Houston, Texas in the first of a planned, nine-play series, Sojourners. Magic Theatre stages the West Coast premiere in a production that is compelling and challenging in its broader themes of family ties and individual aspirations, of how much being of a similar race or a similar nationality does and does not ensure connection, and of how or not do core human definitions of home, love, and marriage translate similarly across continents. But even more important, Sojourners introduces four people as they are – raw, unrehearsed, authentic -- with all that is good and bad and in between in each. But what makes Sojourners an especially important new play is its expression of the human experience of four souls who are precariously hanging on -- both as natives and as immigrants – in their efforts to survive and maybe thrive in the outskirts of the dominant society around them.
We first meet Abasiama Ekpeyoung in her humble apartment with its 1960s green kitchen appliances as she strokes with some combined annoyance and amusement her very pregnant belly -- humming, then singing in her native Nigerian tongue, and finally feeding herself and the hungry, kicking one inside. Her questioning look (as if the protrusion is not really her or hers) and her sigh that she just wants to get back to studying her college biology text establishes some of the conflicts and dilemmas this young, hard-working immigrant will play out in the next two hours. Katherine Renee Turner is outstanding in displaying an ocean-depth of Abasiama’s emotions and expressions -- from long, blank stares of no response to peppered questions aimed at her to visceral screams of anger to desperate cries of lonely anguish and fear. She has arrived in Houston from Nigeria as part of the ‘60s and ‘70s waves of Nigerian education-seekers to join her husband who is supposedly nearing his own graduation from Texas Southern University. She supports him by working long, grueling hours in the sultry, Houston humidity amd standing all day in the small, glass-enclosed cashier’s hut of a Fiesta gas station. And she longs for her faraway dad and close community of extended family and friends while enduring a husband whom she suspects is not going to class and who periodically just disappears for days and weeks at a time.
|Katherine Turner as Abasiama & Jarrod Smith as Ukpong|
Our first encounter with that husband, Ukpong, is as he arrives from one of his sudden sojourns, dressed in bell bottoms, a fashionable shirt showing his buffed chest, and appropriate gold jewelry. He smoothly sachets about the apartment, periodically playing his Motown 33s or turning on his table radio. Jarrod Smith is the fast-talking, highly emotive Ukpong, who does all he can to smooth the ruffled feathers of his arriving wife, promising that he has in fact been studying that “macro-macro shit” and then pouring renewed promises of devotion with phrases like “I’ll be the head and you’ll be the neck that turns me.” Goals they have shared since she arrived in the past year that he graduates, they have a baby, and then the family returns to help revitalize Nigeria soon appear to be in jeopardy as we watch (when his wife is not around) his beer bottles mount, his textbook idle on the floor, and his nervous movements and motions keep aiming him toward the door. Mr. Smith is successful in portraying a guy we want to like, that we want to work it out with himself and his wife, but that we have many doubts that his big smiles, pursed lips for a kiss, and open arms to hold his reluctant wife are actually all only the shallow veneer of an inside loser.
|Katherine Turner as Abasiama & Jamella Cross as Moxie|
Into Abasiama’s life at the gas station enters a cocky, foul-mouthed teenage girl who struts her street stuff in tight shorts that do not cover all that they should and a sparkly halter top that also hides little. Moxie (aka Anna Mae) is a Houston, African-American girl who now hops into arriving trucks to satisfy the sexual fantasies of often, abusive white men. She and Abasiama appear to have nothing in common but begin a relationship-forming journey that is in many ways the heart and soul of this story. Jamella Cross totally scores it big time every minute she is on stage in a role that shifts, transforms, and matures in ways that are fascinating and moving to behold. Her Moxie is full of outer, snotty brashness overlaid on an inner vulnerability and loneliness that is so felt in Ms. Cross’s portrayal that it almost breaks one’s heart to watch. Moxie introduces to Abasiama the joys of a Snicker bar (“Eating this here bar gives me some love”), advises her how to survive in Texas where there is no protecting jungle or family compound (“Out here, you need to take care of yourself”), and instills in the older friend a sense of self-confidence and independence (“You know what you like and what you need ... Just go do it”). Jamella Cross and her Moxie is a reason alone to spend an evening at the Magic.
|Rotimi Agbabiaka as Disciple|
Rounding out this excellent ensemble is Rotimi Afbabiaka as Disciple Ufot, a character that spends much of the first act slumped over his typewriter in a darkened corner of the small stage. Discipline is an immigrant journalist who is searching without much luck for words in English to match those Nigerian ones in his head. “I thank you Lord for giving me three lines, (but) I need a million,” he says as he keeps ripping out papers from the typewriter and tossing them into a sea of wadded paper on the floor. His planned doctoral thesis on the Nigerian immigrant experience is not progressing until he happens upon Abasiama. New words begin to form and flow as he declares to her, “You are my family ... Who on this earth knows you but your roots (like me).” Like Moxie, he stirs in Abasiama a renewed sense of who she is and who she could be in this new land she only meant to visit for a while. Mr. Afbabiaka projects many complicated layers of his Disciple, a fervent man of God but also a man with earthly needs and desires that he believes only Abasiama can fulfill – but not with either Moxie or Ukpong still in the picture.
The Magic production is nothing short of a gripping story of the combined African immigrant and the native African-American experiences in a still, largely segregated Texas. However, its telling is somewhat hampered by a number of times in Sean San Jose’s directed production when it is very difficult to follow what is actually being said. Periodically, there is a sustained predominance of fast-talking shouting on the stage, to the point that the high-dialect speech becomes practically impossible to decipher. If this were only for a sentence or two, there would be little issue; but when the volume goes on for minutes upon minutes of a scene, it becomes annoying and tiresome. Fortunately, most of this occurs in the first act; and volumes are more divergent in the second.
Erik Flatmo has made excellent use of the small, floor-level stage of the Magic to provide several different, authentic settings: a modest apartment, a roadside gas station, and a writer’s cramped study. Karina Chavarin’s costumes accentuate the personalities of each of the four people we meet and give us hints where pressures for assimilation and holding onto native land still play back and forth. David Molina convinces us in his sound design that trucks have in fact driven right into the theatre, and he is aided by an excellent lighting design by York Kennedy.
While Sojourners can stand alone as its own story, the final minute definitely is an enticing invitation for an audience to return to Magic’s upcoming, second chapter of Mfoniso Udofia’s dramatic saga, this one entitled runboyrun. Magic Theatre’s Sojourners is just the kind of thematically relevant, daringly edgy, and emotionally compelling theatre that has been the hallmark of this company’s history; and it is well-worth our own sojourn to Fort Mason to see it.
Rating: 4 E
Sojourners continues through May 8, 2016 at Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center, San Francisco. runboyrun will run April 28 – May 15, 2016. Tickets for both shows are available online at http://magictheatre.org/ or by calling the box office at (415) 441-8822.