It’s a revealing sign of the times that both Boston Court Pasadena and the Pasadena Playhouse are premiering immigrant-themed productions this week. But the two plays move in very different directions..
Strong women and the sacrifices they make propel “Her Portmanteau,” which is receiving its West Coast premiere at Boston Court Pasadena and is part of “The Ufot Cycle,” an ambitious nine-play series by first-generation Nigerian-American playwright Mfoniso Udofia. She is currently in the middle of writing the seventh play; she’s already written the last piece in the cycle as a kind of goal post. “Her Portmanteau” was staged last year at the New York Theater Workshop alongside what Udofia calls “the origin story,” “Sojourners,” but she and director Gregg Daniel believe it can stand alone.
Udofia, who moved to New York City a decade ago after earning an MFA in acting from American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, was loosely inspired by her own family. Her microbiologist mother and academic father immigrated to Houston from Nigeria in the 1970s to study, and eventually settled in Massachusetts; Udofia studied political science at Wellesley College. But her intricately braided stories do not replicate their lives.
“They’re amalgamations of people, so I wouldn’t say this one [character] has an exact representation in my history,” she says. “But I know them intimately because of the people I know in my life as I’m cobbling together, imagining stories that I’ve heard and questions that I’ve had around the stories that I’ve heard. [Laughs] So it’s a fiction that is truly sourced.”
The foundation of all of the plays is “the way in which an immigrant builds their life.” Without giving too much away, “Her Portmanteau” concerns Ufot family matriarch Abasiama and her two eldest children — one of whom she gave away in “Sojourners” so she could remain in the United States and access a particular education unavailable to her in Nigeria. “Sojourners” questioned choices made by a woman who enjoyed “extraordinary privilege” in her homeland, and “whether the Nigerian dream can work within an American paradigm.” In contrast, “Her Portmanteau” examines a knotty emotional dynamic recognizable to anyone whose family tree has been reordered by divorce, death, and remarriage: how three women “who look like each other, feel like each other, and have assumptions about each other” can still have “no idea who each other are.”
Immigration is the plot trigger that has created the circumstances in which those women discover themselves. But what the play really digs into is the “mythologies” that different yet related family clans tell themselves, and the vast chasms between them, and how they figure out the truth and find a way forward.
A substantial amount of dialogue is spoken in Udofia’s family’s native tongue, Ibibio. Daniel says a telephone session with Udofia’s mother helped the cast “get deep into the language,” which is utilized not as atmospheric flourish but as a conscious device to reveal insights into characters within the world of the play.
“Have you ever been in a situation where two, say, Spanish or Swedish speakers suddenly go into their native tongue and you feel like an outsider?” Daniel asks. “You feel like, ‘I can’t enter into this because I don’t know what they’re saying.’ We’re examining the feelings produced when you cannot communicate. The characters speak English, all of them, but when they turn and start speaking in Ibibio, are they code switching? What are they trying to communicate that they couldn’t communicate in English?”
When Udofia speaks a few words in Ibibio, it sounds fluid and musical — Daniel likens it to Mandarin because “some of it is sung” — but slight shifts in inflection can change a word’s meaning. Daniel says he brought in a dialect coach as well as a “tonal person” to help the cast with Ibibio’s linguistic intricacies.
He calls “Her Portmanteau” “a gentle story” about mothers and daughters that doesn’t bludgeon audiences over the head, but instead hopefully prompts them to consider the trade-offs immigrants make. What if, despite their best intentions, they cannot return to their homeland?
“When people leave their native land, possibly because of fear of reprisals and gang violence, what happens when they come to the United States and try to assimilate? What do they leave behind, what do they pick up? It really explores those questions, and myriad questions of betrayal and isolation.”
Discussing “Her Portmanteau,” it’s impossible to avoid the crazy heat of the current geopolitical climate, although Udofia notes that the national conversation wasn’t as fixated on immigration when she started writing in 2009. But as a child of immigrants, she does not find it surprising.
“America has always had a contentious relationship with immigration, and a particular, imperious sort of amnesia when it comes to how America came to be in the first place,” she observes. She says she is trying to “expand our view of what an immigrant is,” and to make clear that the African immigrant experience is complex; not all who come here are refugees.
“A lot of what I hear on television is this thought that immigrants are coming here to take, because their homelands are not good; that they’re buying into the American dream, and it’s one-way, nonreciprocal, ‘I take from it in order to build my life, a new one.’ Not all immigrants work that way. The people I came from had no intention of staying. They absolutely love their homeland. I do think it is very important for America in general to start dealing with a surround-sound, 3D immigrant body.”
Future plays in “The Ufot Cycle” will deal with “ancestral brain” and the unconscious connections of blood, and the goal is for audiences to someday experience the fullness of all nine plays together. “As you start stacking them — and you can do them in any order and in any stacking — you get bigger, fuller stories,” Udofia says. “If you stack all nine, you’re going to watch the entire legacy saga of one African family in America and take a look and go, ‘Was it worth it? What did it cost?’”
Could she envision them being produced as one miniseries on cable? She laughs.
“Right now I am definitely going, ‘Can I get this seventh play finished?’ But yes. Yes, I could.”
Previews for “Her Portmanteau” begin Thursday, May 24, and the play officially opens Saturday, June 2, and runs through June 30 at Boston Court Pasadena, 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena; $20-$39. Info: (626) 683-6801. mfonisoudofia.com, Bostoncourtpasadena.com