Thursday, October 20, 2022


By Ruth Ross

Families and their problems are ubiquitous in all genres of literature. As Leo Tolstoy wrote in his novel, Anna Karenina, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." And perhaps that’s why authors/playwrights love to write about the latter!

Inspired by August Wilson’s 10-play cycle of plays set in Pittsburgh chronicling Black life in the 20th century, Nigerian American Mfoniso Udofia has set out to write a nine-cycle play series called The Ufot Family Cycle, multi-generational stories about Nigerian immigration to the United States, focusing on Abasiama, the matriarch and key player in how they, as a family will build a legacy. Currently running at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, Her Portmanteau is the fourth play in the cycle.

The plot centers on a mother, Abasiama, and her two daughters raised on different continents: Adiaha and Iniabasi. Born in America, Adiaha visited Nigeria once as a small girl. However, Iniabasi was raised by her father in Nigeria after her mother gave her up as an infant, deciding to divorce her father and, after his deportation and departure with the baby, remain in the U.S. to pursue her college degree and, subsequently, marry another man. The play takes place as Iniabasi arrives in the U.S. for the first time with plans to settle in Massachusetts with her mother. But the action occurs in Adiaha’s small New York City apartment, because family complications that keep Iniabasi from going straight to her mother's house. Everything Iniabasi expected—from her mother and sister’s physical appearance to living arrangements—is stood on its head and provides much of the conflict that unfolds during that fraught, frigid January 2014 afternoon.

Over a taut 90 minutes, Director Laiona Michelle keeps the action marching inexorably toward some sort of conclusion and elicits splendid performances from her trio of actors. As Iniabasi, Shannon Harris is appropriately sullen, her anger at having to wait 36 years to return to America—although she is an American citizen—is so palpable you could cut it with a knife. She argues with her sister, demanding that she be treated with respect because she, Iniabasi, is the older sister, yet her vulnerability is on full display as she lets her mother enfold her and comfort her much as one does with a toddler. 

Jennean Farmer matches Harris's performance as the bubbly American 30-something Adiaha, confused by this dour, rather nasty young woman who has “invaded” her space. Her initial enthusiasm for her sister’s arrival quickly disappears upon their meeting; her tears and sobs at Iniabasi’s mistreatment of her are very poignant indeed. And Mattilyn Rochester Kravitz’s portrayal of tightly wound matriarch Abasiama (left) is also heart-wrenching; her desire for her older daughter’s love competes with the guilt she feels at having abandoned her child, although she is proud of what she was able to accomplish during her 36-year tenure in the United States. Although she claims to dislike shows of emotion, that curtain is lifted when she pokes around in Iniabasi’s suitcase (the portmanteau of the title) and finds something so unexpected that her reserves crack, and she becomes more human.

Her Portmanteau is unique in playwright Udofia’s use of language—in this case English and Ibibio, one of 520 languages spoken in Nigeria. Just as many immigrants speak a combination of American English and their native tongues, the three women often speak Ibibio, without subtitles or translation, although if you listen carefully, the gist of what has been said is, I think, made clear in subsequent English dialogue. While the use of Ibibio lends verisimilitude to the dialogue, I often found myself wanting to know just what the characters were saying. Too, there were times when the actors spoke softly, so softly that I had to cup my hand around my ear to hear them. This may suit the intimate situation, but it made it difficult to understand what they were saying.

As usual, GSP’s production values are stellar. Shoko Kambara’s set encompasses both JFK airport and Adiaha’s small, 3-room Inwood apartment to provide a relatable space for the action to occur. Gregory J. Horton’s costumes suit the characters who wear them, especially Abasiama, whose long skirt, wide belt and jewelry harken back to her native country while feeling contemporaneous to America. Karin Graybash’s sound is most apparent in the airport scenes, which Cheyenne Sykes has lit to project the sterile environment into which Iniabasi finds herself when disembarking from her transatlantic flight. And Maggie Surovell is to be commended for her dialect coaching; Harris’s Nigerian-accented English and the Ibibio dialogue coached by Ebbe Bassey is especially convincing.

At a time when immigration is the #1 topic in political discourse, it is touching and appropriate for us see and understand the hurdles they face while establishing a home here in the U.S. Iniabasi is not really an immigrant; even though she was raised in Nigeria, she is an American citizen because she was born here. 
Her Portmanteau addresses the themes of identity, duty and legacy, along with the duality of immigrant life. The play is essentially a family drama, one that reveals to us that, even though language and customs may differ, we are all the same—we hold resentments, erect emotional shields to protect our vulnerabilities and long for love and acceptance. 

Her Portmanteau represents the baggage we all carry around, whether we are Nigerian or American. Its “unpacking” in a single living room makes for a satisfying theatrical experience you won’t want to miss.

Her Portmanteau will be performed at the Arthur Laurents Theatre in the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center, 9 Livingston Ave., New Brunswick, through October 30. For information and tickets, call the box office at (732) 246-7717 or visit online.

For directions to the NBPAC and Parking Options, please click here.

Photos by T. Charles Erickson