Meet the Playwright Putting the Spotlight on African Immigrants

Outside the Theatre   Meet the Playwright Putting the Spotlight on African Immigrants
 
New York Theatre Workshop’s Mfoniso Udofia has a mission: to expand our knowledge of what an African story can be.
Mfoniso Udofia
Mfoniso Udofia Marc J. Franklin

Who: Mfoniso Udofia
Outside: New York Theatre Workshop

Mfoniso Udofia
Mfoniso Udofia Marc J. Franklin

This month, New York Theatre Workshop debuts two new plays by Mfoniso Udofia: Sojourners and Her Portmanteau. Both works are part of the playwright’s epic, nine-part Ufot Cycle, which chronicles the life—the triumphs and losses—of a Nigerian immigrant woman living in America. For the playwright, these plays are an important step in expanding our knowledge of African narratives. “It’s making something invisible, visible,” says Udofia.

What compelled you to write a nine-part saga?
Mfoniso Udofia: It started off as one [play], then it became three, then five, then nine. It was very organic; I wanted to write about the Nigerian first generation experience in America, and then I got interested in the lineage and how people like me got to be in this country. What does it take to immigrate? All of a sudden, a play started growing into plays.

Has your own personal experience influenced these plays?
It’s fiction, but it’s sourced from a story that I do know shades of—my mom and dad immigrated here and I’ve been within an immigrant community. I’ve been snatching sentiments and desires that I’ve seen and known, and fashioning a new kind of story.

What are some of the things you’ve observed?
The sense of loss—the things you give up in order to build a new life. I’ve watched people do that over and over again.

Being an immigrant in America has taken on entirely new meaning in 2017. Has that affected the way these works are being staged right now?
I think that in America—for all of the beautiful rhetoric around inviting people into this country—there are also deeply xenophobic strains. I would be lying if I said that [2017] is a completely new day; I actually think that a lot of this sentiment has been present for a while. I am sad that the plays have taken on this particular salience right now, but I know that for some, these plays were salient four years ago.

Why did you choose to solely focus on the African immigrant experience?
It’s my mission as a playwright to make sure that we look at people from the African continent within an American context. A lot of the plays that we see about Africa are distancing—exotic stories or pains that Americans may not be able to relate to on a day-to-day basis—I wasn’t seeing nuanced stories of Africans in America. When you see a Nigerian body in a continent that you know, you start to have linkages to these people that are beyond a sympathy for them. There’s actually empathy. It’s making something invisible, visible. I’m hoping that audiences come away from the plays with an expanded knowledge of what an African story can be.

Should the plays be seen in a particular order?
Sojourners is the origin story, then after that you can see any play in the nine-part saga in any order. Sojourners focuses on how a woman deals with the Nigerian dream that she has for herself and that shredding against the American reality she’s in. Her Portmanteau is the culmination of that—her looking back after 36 years and saying: ‘Did I make the right decision?’ I’m excited about the pairing of these two plays together because it’s about legacy-building from a woman’s perspective—an immigrant woman.

Sojourners and Her Portmanteau are being performed in repertory at the downtown theatre April 22 through June 4. For tickets and more information visit NYTW.org.

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