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'Sojourners' - Nigerian Immigrants Face Life in 1970s America


Chinasa Ogbuagu and Hubert Point-Du Jour in Sojourners
(©Chasi Annexy)

A potentially moving play lies underneath the surface of Mfoniso Udofia's Sojourners, which opened at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater last night in a Playwrights Realm production.

Udofia's timely drama centers on a trio of Nigerian immigrants who are all attempting to carve out a life for themselves in the late 1970s in Houston, Texas while also grappling with issues of assimilation. There are also other struggles, particularly for Abasiama and her husband Ukpong. They are both students and expecting their first child. The trouble is that, while she carries the baby, works a job, and diligently studies, he's more interested in carousing with friends and listening to the Motown music that he holds near and dear to his heart.

Difficulties of a different sort loom for a man who has taken the name "Disciple." He has found himself completely stalled when it comes to his writing in this country. Even attempts at dictating in his native tongue and then transcribing in English prove fruitless. At one point, as he struggles to complete one sentence, he exclaims, "My Lord! How many words for almost the same thing here?!"

Their stories have the potential to be fascinating and powerful stuff. So to does that of streetwise Annamae, who has taken the apt name of "Moxie," and whose life intersects with the three others after she's met Abasiama at the gas station where the once-privileged Nigerian woman works, Unfortunately, much of Udofia's detail-rich script plays as if it were a series of overlapping monologues, many of which repeat the same information.

Further undermining the potential of the play is Ed Sylvanus Iskandar's direction which requires the performers to generally look toward the audience as they speak. This style breaks any sense of emotional connection that the characters might have with one another and only further distances theatergoers from the action.

It's a pity because the tales that Udofia's sharing are pungent, and Iskandar has a superlative four person ensemble at his disposal. Chinasa Oguagu and Hubert Point-Du Jour both spark with a genuine chemistry as the married couple and even as they bring the pair's antagonisms to uncomfortably to life. There's also fine work from Chinaza Uche, who never makes Disciple's religious zealotry caricatured, and from Lakisha Michelle May, who brings both feral toughness and lovely vulnerability to her turn as Moxie.

Beyond the performers, Sojourners benefits from Jason Sherwood's clever scenic design, which underscores how Udofia's characters are living on their own sort of personally created islands, while simultaneously allowing the show to flow between apartments, the gas station and ultimately a hospital room.

Sojourners, which Udofia labels as "the first ufot family play, may not succeed in touching theatergoers, but there's enough intelligence in the piece to make one wonder what might follow in this seeming series.

---- Andy Propst


Sojourners plays at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater (416 West 42nd Street). For more information and tickets, visit: playwrightsrealm.org.