What is the impact of experiencing a genocidal civil war when one’s ancestry, bloodline and religion are used as targeted excuses for extermination? If one survives, is it possible to overcome the wartime horrors one experienced? Or is the sufferer doomed to circularly repeat the emotional ravages of past events that erupt from the unconscious and imprison the captive forever in misery? How is such a cycle broken to begin a process of healing?
In runboyrun, Mfoniso Udofia, first-generation Nigerian-Amerian playwright, through poetic flashback and mysterious revelation, with parallel action fusing the past with the present, explores these questions. Majestically, in her examination of principal characters Disciple Ufot (the superb Chiké Johnson), and his long-suffering wife Abasiama Ufot (the equally superb Patrice Johnson Chevannes), we witness how Disciple overcomes decades of suffering with the help of Abasiama during a night which is a turning point toward hope and redemption.
A bit of backstory is warranted. In 2017 New York Theatre Workshop presented two of Mfoniso Udofia’s plays in repertory (Sojourners, Her Portmanteau). runboyrun and In Old Age are two of Mfonsio Udofia’s offerings which are plays in The Ufot Cycle, a series of nine plays in total which chronicles four generations of a family of stalwart women and men of Nigerian descent. Though the plays currently presented at NYTW are conjoined to elucidate similar themes, they do not run in sequence. Nevertheless, both plays spotlight Mfonsio Udofia as a unique female voice of the African diaspora in the United States. Both represent the particularity of her exceptional work from a maverick’s perspective.
The first play directed by Loretta Greco begins with a flashback of a sister and brother. The setting is January, 1968 Biafra, the southern part of Nigeria that attempted to gain independence from Nigeria during the three year Biafran Civil War. During a lull in the shelling by the government in a hideout in the bush, the sister comforts her brother with a metaphorical story about the foundation of humanity and life. Then she encourages him to run as a game. However, it is the one activity that will save their lives as they escape the Nigerian soldiers at every turn, until they reach a safe place in a compound with their mother and brother.
This setting alternates to the present January, 2012, where we are introduced to the Ufots, transplanted Nigerians who immigrated to the United States, became citizens and eventually settled in the ramshackle interior of their colonial house in Massachusetts. However, from the moment Johnson’s Disciple enters their cold, dank home and with bellicosity relates to Chevannes’ Abasiama, we understand that their estrangement is acute. For her part Abasiama, who lies on the couch in the center of the living room wrapped up in layers of clothing with blankets and sheets thrown over her head, disengages from his behaviors, attempting to stay away from his weird, oppressive antics.
Disciple attempts to control her every move, berates and blames her for the bad spirits in the house. However, it becomes obvious that it is he who suffers derangement. He is fixated on the perception that everything outside him and especially his wife are the source of his bad luck and the wickedness that plagues him and threatens to upend his life and his writing. In what we learn has become a ritualistic practice, Disciple uses a thin stick to circumscribe areas as safe to prevent evil spirits from disarranging and unsettling his peace. Abasiama, used to this behavior, plays Christian music; Christianity was a part of their Igbo ancestry. However, after Disciple’s exorcism, when he attempts to begin work on a new book, the past erupts. Once more the playwright creates flashbacks which establish and explain Disciple’s instability and borderline insanity.
Udofia’s structure interlacing the past with the present is particularly strengthened by Andrew Boyce’s scenic design which threads the action, symbols and themes. The house is divided in a cross section symbolizing the division in Disciple’s and Abasiama’s relationship and marriage so we see how both conduct their lives in separate parts of the house: Abasiama upstairs, Disciple in the basement. They do not communicate, nor are they intimate with each other’s thoughts and feelings, sharing little if anything of their histories, a tragedy which has led to the disintegration of their marriage. Their lives are separately lived; they buy food separately, use different refrigerators. Disciple cooks for himself and they take their meals separately because he believes she may poison him.
The separation extends even to the different churches they attend and Disciple’s cruel treatment of Abasiama, which she sustains because to take a stand against it would rain down more abuse. Disciple begrudges Abasiama warmth for the upper floors which have insufficient heat to brace up against the cold Worcester, Massachusetts winter. This behavior of keeping the upper floors cold reflects Disciple’s abusiveness and penuriousness, not only with finances but with emotional intimacy and love.
The division/cross section symbolizes a number of elements which define the characters so acutely portrayed by Johnson and Chevannes with maximum authenticity. It represents the compartmentalization of Abasiama’s and Disciple’s minds, especially Disciple’s as it relates to his unconscious memories which he’s suppressed, and on this night erupt with great ferocity. For Abasiama, she compartmentalizes her rage and anger against Disciple; to express the emotions will result in violence so she must be stoic. The events that play out from the past take place in the “basement” area. Events move upstairs when Abasiama extends grace to Disciple and he relives the flashback that has shaken his soul and increasingly knocked on his heart to be released as he has aged. If he does not, surely he will damage and destroy everything he has, most importantly his relationship with Abasiama.
It is in the “basement” of his being on this particular night that Disciple confronts the spirits that have haunted him for decades. By the play’s conclusion he revisits the blood soaked memories of his childhood during the horrors of the Biafran War. The spirits rise and their energy drives him to the brink of irrationality, which he takes out on Abasiama, who finally proclaims “enough,” and tells him she wants a divorce. In shock he returns downstairs and she hears him raving against the energies that roil him (his unconscious terror and guilt).
Mfoniso Udofia expertly weaves in concurrent flashbacks which reveal seminal events that shattered Disciple’s consciousness and emotionally freeze him in time. We learn why he is psychotic in recreated scenes of his family: sister (Adrianna Mitchell), mother (Zenzi Williams), Benjamin (Adesola Osakalumi). Karl Green portrays Disciple as a boy. And on Abasiama’s encouragement and love, he finally reaches the core event to expurgate it and grieve, thus beginning the healing process.
Chiké Johnson is acutely, sensitively invested in his portrayal of Disciple. Patrice Johnson Chevannes as Abasiama is expert and uplifting at the conclusion of runboyrun. And in the segue to the next play, we see her transformation into a withered, dried up old woman living with the rage and fury bestowed upon her by Disciple who has died by the opening of In Old Age.
It is Abasiama’s fury that has carried over from her time with Disciple that Mfoniso Udofia examines in the play In Old Age. The stoicism we see in runboyrun blossoms into rage against herself for “putting up with” Disciple and not leaving him. Whether such anger manifests when we age, so that we have no tolerance for ourselves and are grumpy and angry with others is an interesting question that Mfoniso Udofia posits. Yet, it is in Abasiama’s interactions with Azell Abernathy the workman (Ron Canada), that the emotional abuse she never discussed or confronted Disciple about is now coming to call. And likewise, the tragic alcoholic-fueled abuse that centered around Abernathy’s marriage, that Abasiama intuits harmed his marriage, becomes a focal point of their interactions.
Abernathy and Abasiama clash and their expressed annoyances with each other are sometimes humorous. However, because they are both Christians, they attempt to bear up with one another. Indeed, Abernathy is much more determined to do so than initially Abasiama seems to want to. How Mfoniso Udofia brings these two together to establish the beginnings of a loving relationship is a lesson in grace and the spiritual need for forgiveness and emotional healing.
The plot development of In Old Age is simple. Azell Abernathy must persuade Abasiama to allow him to repair her house, the same house that she lived in with Disciple. However, the house is in more than need of repair. Abasiama hears what she believes is Disciple ranging and banging around in the basement. Just like in runboyrun when Disciple projected his terror and hurt onto Abasiama, now Abasiama projects her rage and anger onto the house and in magical realism fashion, it manifests in banging and noise.
One of the problems is that Abasiama subverted her own healing and empowerment to help Disciple redeem himself. Now she regrets her sacrifice and unselfishness. As a result, when Abasiama is forced to deal with Azell Abernathy (Ron Canada in a highly nuanced, sensitive, clarion performance), whom her daughters have paid to repair the house, the rage has so swelled inside of her she drips bile. Toward Abernathy, she is provocative and she riles him to the point where he nearly becomes abusive. However, he has learned. He leaves, goes outside and prays for her.
His prayers work with power and change comes with revelation. Abasiama realizes she can no longer carry around past hurts and regrets. To expurgate them, she cleans out the “basement” (symbolic of her own soul and psyche), of all of the artifacts that Disciple kept there. As she throws them out, she frees herself realizing she is responsible for her own happiness and cannot blame her misery on Disciple. Cleansed from a night of dealing with her own regrets about her life, Abasiama is ready to face a new day. In a great, symbolic gesture, Abernathy washes her feet as Christ did with his disciples, showing he forgives her and forgives himself. It is an act of sublime strength. She receives his good will, Christian love and faith. She removes her shackles represented by her headdress and shows Abernathy her true self. She is beautiful. In their old age they have found love after confessing their faults to each other to be healed.
In Old Age is a hopeful, redemptive encomium to our ability to grow and regenerate our souls if we face ourselves. Directed by Awoye Timpo, In Old Age is just lovely and the complex performances by Canada and Chevannes are sterling, poignant and uplifting. Kudos to Andrew Boyce (scenic design), Karen Perry (costume design), Oona Curley (lighting design).
These are productions you do not want to miss for the profound beauty of Mfoniso Udofia’s work and the great ensemble acting. The tension in runboyrun is truly striking. runboyrun and In Old Age are at NYTW on 4th Street between 2nd and the Bowery. The production runs with one intermission. For tickets and times CLICK HERE.