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.
Depending upon how you view the months since the 2016 election, playwright, actress Heidi Schreck’s timely What the Constitution Means to Me casts a long shadow and provides trenchant perspectives. Of course one may view it simply as a pleasurable, informative romp through a document most remain clueless about. Or perhaps one may identify that her humorous, vibrant writing more profoundly remains a siren call to “get woke!”
Indeed, the production staged and set in an American Legion Hall, directed by Oliver Butler, stars award winning actress and writer Heidi Schreck. And it took years in the making. With assistance by fellow actor Mike Iveson and debater Rosdely Ciprain, the result sparkles. Schreck’s crisp, sharp, ironic writing encapsulates American themes and pivotal, historical moments that changed our laws. Abundantly, these perplex. For they concern the constitution’s long-range evolution toward greatness. But Schreck also includes how the people have stretched the document over the chasm of far reaching human miseries. At any time it may break, and our society plummet into the abyss. Her work and its cattle-prod intent remain a fascinating, thought-provoking must-see.
Indeed, humorous and enthusiastic throughout, Schreck’s “light-hearted” approach belies the seriousness of the subject in today’s light/dark atmospheres. For she presents profound and disquieting principles and facts about our lives that we cannot dismiss. And she accomplishes what the news media at times does not. She presents with succinct, factual details and logical arguments that clarify. Importantly, she makes one think beyond memes and spurious arguments, troll epithets, and misinterpretations!
This alone remains worth the price of the ticket. In fact her production should be opened to area schools. Sitting just 10 minutes into the first half of the performance solidifies why. With a facile, funny, and vitally spontaneously delivery, Schreck becomes our vibrant teacher and historian. Notably, she proves the past abides in the present through her debates about the amendments. These concern those (9th, 4th), not typically familiar. Nevertheless, she proves why we should know them as crucial to our rights and well being.
During the production, Schreck reveals her personal veneration of our country’s democratic principles particularly outlined in the laws written after the Civil War. The quotes from distinguished justices and presidents alike illuminate. Assuredly, most amendments guarantee equity for every citizen and the rights of due process for all. And she notes the pitfalls where such principles and laws wobbled and continue to shake. Subtly, she infers that we must continually apprise ourselves of our constitution’s ever flexible nature.
Evolution and devolution include the same letters save one. In other words we are a letter away from the collapse of the bedrock laws of equity. If pernicious, power-usurping partisans undo just applications for the great majority to benefit the proportionately few wealthy, contentment, and prosperity wanes for most citizens. Exemplified, though not mentioned in Schreck’s work would be Citizens United which favors corporate donors giving multi-millions to politicians’ PACS thereby owning them.
Additionally, her discussion relating the constitution’s impact on women in her own family acknowledges strides. But it also portends fissures and potential earthquakes setting “women’s rights” back decades. This discussion Schreck attends to in the second segment of her production
Winningly, in the first half Schreck recalls her teenage years and how she employed her reading, writing and research skills to earn needed college scholarship money. As a teenager she competed in debates for various prizes from the American Legion. Indeed, these competitions challenged her thinking and debate skills. Of course her presentation centered around “what the constitution meant to her” at that age. Thus, she uses this presentation format which she delivers to white military legionnaires (we, her audience, become them), at the American Legion Hall in the state of Washington. And returning to her teenage self, she argues the constitution’s relevance to her, evoking these debates. In the fast forward to now, we compare notes and assess our progress in the current times.
This clever vehicle allows Schreck and Mike Iveson (as a Legionnaire and himself), to set up her detailed and fascinating account of women in her family and how the constitution might have and then did impact them. As she discusses the lies promulgated to bring women to settle Washington state (one woman for every nine men), she enumerates the suicides and death rates of wives at the hands of their husbands. For example, her great, great-grandmother, a mail-order bride, ended up in an asylum and died of melancholia in her thirties. Schreck ruminates about the possible back story of what happened to her. Dismissively, we may think, “times have changed.”
Then, she reveals today’s statistics. One in three women will be abused by male partners. One in four women are raped by men. And half of women killed die at the hands of their partners. However, women, no longer chattel (property), may seek justice. At one point in our history husbands could kill their wives with impunity. Yet, with lawsuits against Roger Ailes, Bill O’Reilly, Harvey Weinstein, and others, the #MeToo movement is a vital necessity. But will it negatively impact the constitution with the recent justice appointment?
In the third segment Schreck goes head-to-head with a student debater about whether we should keep or abolish the current constitution and create a new one. The evening I saw the production, Rosdely Ciprain revealed her feisty, funny debating chops and bested Schreck. However, Schreck’s spot-on argument about creating a positive rights constitution like those found in many European countries rang with sound truth.
What are negative vs. positive rights? Our negative rights constitution insures what the government cannot do to its citizens. On the other hand a positive rights constitution indicates what the government must provide: safety, security, healthcare, a living wage. After WWII FDR intended to institute a Second Bill of Rights which would have shifted the direction of our rights to positive ones. Of course, this became anathema to conservative corporates. And they held sway over our government and still do today.
Ours is a negative rights constitution. Hence, the government does not guarantee affordable healthcare, a decent living wage, human rights over corporate rights, mandates limiting excessive CEO pay, a proportionate equitable tax structure, etc. And it may rescind a “woman’s right to choose” what she might do with her own body.” Certainly, our congress has yet to pass an Equal Rights Amendment.
Throughout, this superb production keeps one enthralled and laughing. But Schreck’s points run far and wide as she encourages our active participation in civics to understand our current historical reckoning. Thematically, she infers much. I divine from her work that like watchful sentinels, we must support the ACLU and other advocacy groups. And with them we must hold accountable our politicians to prevent thinning the constitutional threads so that they never break. Indeed, we must prevent the political think tanks and lobbyists who control our legislators from overriding through the courts the will of the majority of U.S. taxpayers/citizens. In the current tide of the Supreme Court Justice Kavanaugh times, this “must” appears more problematic than ever.
However, Schreck evokes a hopeful image her mother, a feminist, suggested to uplift her. First, picture a woman walking along a beach with a dog which darts back and forth, in the tide and waves. The dog races forward then races behind her and backtracks from whence it came. Then it moves forward, then backward. However, the woman walks forward, forward, steadily, slowly, undeterred, forward. This metaphor encourages us to hope. Not only to hope for women, but to hope for men, and LBGT communities who support equitable, positive rights for all born in this nation. And along with hope must come the energy to debate and persuade with reason and logic how undergirding the vulnerable and weak strengthens the strong.
The production currently at New York Theatre Workshop (83 E 4th Street) until 28 October, runs with no intermission. With scenic design by Rachel Hauck, costume design by Michael Krass, lighting design by Jen Schriever, and sound design by Sinan Zafar, this humorous masterwork should be extended. Hopefully, it will attend at another venue at some point in the near future. For tickets and times go to nytw.org.