Though she never appears onstage, Nigerian-American playwright Mfoniso Udofia might just be the real star of Boston Court Pasadena’s newest show “Her Portmanteau.”
By Melanie Hooks
After all, it’s her life experience as the child of Nigerian immigrants that shapes every breath of this play, the sixth and latest in a nine-part cycle of shows that put her specific family and culture center stage. “I am first generation, and I have one foot in one world and one foot in another,” said Udofia in an interview with American Theatre. “I started writing because I didn’t see enough of [first generation Americans on U.S. stages]. I just started writing about the people and the stories and I knew that would fulfill the rage from which I started writing.”
Certainly Udofia’s three central female characters each have reason to feel and display rage now and again, but primarily the audience walks away with a transformative feeling, one rooted in the power of forgiveness and love. The regal and reserved Abasiama, powerfully enlivened by Joyce Guy, must try and make two very different daughters feel loved. Not easy when she raised only one herself, the engaging and modern Adiaha, played by the equally engaging Omoze Idehenre. The other, older daughter, Iniabasi (Délé Ogundiran), left with her father in Nigeria, returns as a young mother herself to New York and must find her way through culture shock (surely every American is rich?) and blinding rage at having been left behind. Ini feels she’s not only been robbed of her mother, but even her name, as ‘Adiaha’ in the Ibibio tribal language typically denotes the eldest daughter – a name ‘stolen’ by her younger half-sibling who now wears it as the eldest American daughter. To reveal more about this complex set of relationships would be to spoil the joy of discovering it as it unfolds.
And joy it is. Ogundrian wears Ini’s righteous anger like a shield and wields it as a weapon worthy of any epic family drama, which this assuredly is, despite its all unfolding in the cozy and perfectly dressed set from Stage Designer Tesshi Nakagawa and Properties Designer Erin Walley. To set a long action sequence around cooking a homemade meal, visibly edible, is no small challenge, and the team led by Stage Manager Katherine Hoevers-Lester pull it off admirably. “Her Portmanteau” was first staged in New York City, winner of the Edgerton Foundation New Play Award, and doubtless many effects originated there. But Boston Court Pasadena’s stage has the singular attraction of its large overhead drop space being used as an ancillary backdrop for Projection Designer Nick Santiago’s changing images of family, particularly this family, and its members, present and missing.
Sound Designer Jeff Gardner and Lighting Designer Karyn Lawrence both deserve kudos for subtle but effective shifts in tone and timbre that bring home the play’s biggest (and smallest) moments. Too often these departments attempt to overwhelm the audience to bring home an emotional point instead of allowing the actors and audience to find their own connection. Not so here, where gradual shifts to and from shadow and light and lilting tones strike our subconscious more than our overt awareness. Both Gardner and Lawrence set the standard for their crafts.
Director Gregg T. Daniel knew playwright Udofia from New York and deserves the credit for convincing Boston Court Pasadena’s directors to premiere the West Coast production of “Her Portmanteau,” and Pasadena is much the richer for the privilege. Daniel’s recent success at A Noise Within with his “Raisin in the Sun,” followed by this blazing trail of a play, puts him in the forefront of Pasadena’s most exciting and powerful artists this season. Don’t miss your chance to say you saw it here first.
• Written by Mfoniso Udofia
• Directed by Gregg T. Daniel
Joyce Guy (Abasiama), Omozé Idehenre (Adiaha), Délé Ogundiran (Iniabasi)
Boston Court Pasadena
70 N Mentor Ave., Pasadena, CA 91106
• Through June 30
-PUBlic Discourse Night: Thu, Jun 7 (all tickets include a drink token for T. Boyle’s Pub; join after the show!)
• General admission: $39, Seniors: $34, Students: $20.
-Community Matinée: Sat, Jun 9 (2pm performance tickets are $5)
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