A Nigerian woman, Iniabasi Ekpeyong, arrives in the United States carrying just a portmanteau — a type of suitcase, for those unfamiliar with the word — and a massive amount of resentment in “Her Portmanteau,” an explosive family drama that is currently being presented by George Street Playhouse at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center.
Her mother, Abasiama Ufot, and her father had gotten divorced when she was still young. She grew up in Nigeria with her father (now deceased) while Abasiama started a new family with a new husband (still living, but mentally ill) in the United States. Iniabasi — now a mother herself — has basically felt abandoned her whole life.
The portmanteau remains unopened for most of the play. But when is is finally opened, its contents lead to a climactic scene that is more about the bonds that hold these women together than their heartbreaking history. It’s a powerful, memorable resolution, though Nigerian-American playwright Mfoniso Udofia, I felt, does not make what leads up to it — scenes in which Iniabasi and Abasiama face off in a kind of grudge-venting, conversational standstill — equally compelling. For my tastes, there was too much talking about past history, and not enough actually happening, in the course of the play.
There are actually three characters. Iniabasi (Shannon Harris) and Abasiama (Maittilyn Rochester Kravitz) are joined by Adiaha Ufot (Jennean Farmer), who is Abasiama’s daughter and Iniabasi’s half-sister. Adiaha picks Iniabasi up at the airport, and it is at Adiaha’s modest Manhattan apartment that the uncomfortable family reunion (and almost all of the play) takes place. Adiaha, the most even-tempered of the three (though her issues eventually come out in the open, too), has prepared for a celebratory reunion, with food and champagne, and is visibly deflated when it turns into an emotional slugfest.
Along the way, there are some amusing moments derived from the cultural differences of the three women, as when Iniabasi looks scornfully at a painting (unseen by us) that hangs in Adiaha’s apartment.
“Someone made it for me, a friend,” says Adiaha.
“Ah, he hates you,” responds Iniabasi.
Director Laiona Michelle — well known to George Street audiences as an actress, and a recent staff addition with the title of artistic associate — surely deserves some of the credit for making Iniabasi, Abasiama and Adiaha such distinctive, sharply etched characters. Language consultant Ebbe Bassey and dialect coach Maggie Surovell help to ensure that Iniabisi and Abasiama’s conversation in the Ibibio dialect of Nigeria, and their heavily accented English, sound authentic. (None of the actresses spoke Ibibio previously.)
In a clever bit of staging, a second-level stage, over the main stage, is used for the first scene, showing Iniabasi arriving at the airport. An electronic scroll, previously devoted to showing airport arrivals and departures, translates Iniabasi’s words when she speaks in Ibibio. But the rest of the play — i.e., most of it — is staged more conventionally, in Adiaha’s apartment (and, alas, the occasional bits of conversation in Ibibio that come later are not translated in any way, though it is usually possible to get the gist of what is being said through context and body language and so on). Adding a bit of interest, we can spy on characters when they retreat to Adiaha’s bedroom to be away from the other two in the living room and kitchen.
“Her Portmanteau” is set in 2014 and was first presented off-Broadway in 2017. It is part of Udofio’s projected nine-part series of plays about this family, “The Ufot Cycle,” which will presumably flesh out the history that is discussed here.
It is hard to say for sure, but I could see the possibility of “Her Portmanteau,” with its simmering fury and ultimate catharsis, serving as the central play for the entire cycle.
The George Street Playhouse presents “Her Portmanteau” at the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center through Oct. 30. Visit georgestreetplayhouse.org.
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