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A new play finds immigrants pulled between two nations
Ah the American dream. That ineffable ideal so often chased in films, television, and plays. But when you're new to America how do you go about the search for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? And do your goals for this country change when your dreams include returning to the place you were born?
Those questions hang over Mfoniso Udofia's Sojourners, which explores the tricky choice between the American and Nigerian dream.
The play, which is running through February 13 in a production from Playwrights Realm, follows Abasiama, who has come to the U.S. with her husband Ukpong. Eight months pregnant and feeling fraught about her future, she tells her husband exactly what she wants: "Goal 1: Marry well. Goal iba: Get ticket to America. Enroll. Goal ita. Get that degree, have a baby. Last goal. Important goal. Goal number 4. Return home. Go home, Ukpong. If we are stuck at point 3 there can be no going home."
But Ukpong is less intent on going back.
For Udofia, who is first generation Nigerian-American, both characters evoke an ongoing cultural debate. "I wanted to write a generation story where you see what it is like for Nigerian immigrants who come to the country and have this goal of education and returning," she says, adding that Abasiama embodies the legacy of her birth nation and the hope of creating something good for her people. "A big question for Abasiama is, 'What is rebuilding, and what is rebuilding after decolonialization and war?
"Ukpong is a part of that too, but when he gets to America he realizes that another kind of dreaming can occur. What happens when you dream inside another paradigm? He's like 'This is Motown!' But Abasiama's like, 'We have our own music.'"
Udofia says Sojourners is less autobiographical than it is an amalgamation of experience with "bits and pieces" inspired by people she's known and literature she's read. With that in mind, it is perhaps not surprising that these stories cannot be contained in just one play. In fact, Sojourners is part of a nine-play cycle that follows a family over generations. Udofia has written five of the nine plays so far.
"At first I thought it was a trilogy, but now I'm feeling good with nine," she says with a laugh. Sojourners is the first in the cycle. New York City's P73 recently did a reading of the second installment, The Grove, and the Magic Theatre in San Francisco will premiere the third play, runboyrun, in April.
Speaking of magic: It's a complicated word for Udofia.
On the first page of the script she requests that designers "please keep in mind the magical energy of the piece." Asked about this, she says, "Let me disrupt the word 'magic.' I think we often think about magic as something that happens outside of ourselves, but these characters are connected to their ancestors, their land, their history. There is magic in that connection."
Ukpong, for example, carries an entire history within him. As Udofia notes, this naturally informs how "he first tastes America. These characters are so connected to their past that what their hands make can be as strange and powerful as anything."
Audiences experience this magic in much of the play's design, and also in the way song is incorporated into the piece. "I look at this play like an opera," Udofia says. "The construction and rhythm are important in order to hear the echoes of other lands. What are the spaces between the words? That's what I am always writing into."
TDF Members: At press time, discount tickets were available for Sojourners. Go here to browse our current offers.
Eliza Bent is a Brooklyn-based writer and performer.