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runboyrun & In Old Age

Theatre Review by David Hurst - September 23, 2019

Patrice Johnson Chevannes and Chiké Johnson
Photo by Joan Marcus

In 2007, New York Theatre Workshop produced Sojourners and Her Portmanteau, two plays of a projected nine from Mfoniso Udofia's sprawling, ambitious Ufot Cycle, which tells the story of a Nigerian woman, Abasiama Ufot, and the generations of family that spring from her as she navigates life in America. This fall NYTW is producing the second duet of Udofia's plays, runboyrun and In Old Age. Unfortunately, despite superb acting and a game sense of "we-can-do-it" gumption, the plays, presented as one evening of work, are an unrelentingly slow, grim slog. It's a tribute to the extraordinary Patrice Johnson Chevannes, who stars as Abasiama in both plays, the evening is endurable at all. Her faultless sense of timing and unfailingly honest acting cut to the heart of Udofia's writing and she's always a pleasure to watch. It's a shame the same can't be said about the plays themselves, which are both overwritten and a trial to endure.

Set in 2012 in their Worcester, Massachusetts family home, runboyrun is a harrowing study of Abasiama's second husband, Disciple Ufot (Chiké Johnson), and his traumatic childhood as a survivor of the civil war (1967-1970) that erupted when Biafra declared independence from Nigeria. Directed by Loretta Greco, the play is filled with flashbacks to 1968 when Disciple was a Boy (Karl Green), where we meet his mother (Zenzi Williams), his sister (Adrianna Mitchell) and his brother (Adesola Osakalumi), all of whom are barely surviving in warn-torn Biafra. The Worcester house, a character itself in both plays, haunts Disciple with doors opening and closing on their own, as well as the flashbacks he experiences down in the basement where he's shut himself off from Abasiama who's at her breaking point with her clearly disturbed husband, after telling him she wants a divorce. The conclusion of runboyrun finds Disciple finally revealing to Abasiama what happened to him as a child that he's carried with him for the thirty years they've been married. She's rightly furious with him for keeping this story from her and we're not sure what will happened to this fractured couple as the play concludes.

Directed by Awoye Timpo and set several decades in the future in the same Worcester house, now dilapidated and falling apart, In Old Age finds Abasiama an old woman having to deal with an elderly man, Azell Abernathy (Ron Canada), who shows up on her doorstep to do repair work which has been prepaid by Abasiama's daughter, Adiaha. Of course, the last thing Abasiama wants is anyone in her house but Azell's tenacity and stubbornness rival hers and he eventually works his way into her house and, perhaps, her life. Even more so than in runboyrun, the house in In Old Age, now clearly haunted by Disciple and the ghosts of her bad life decisions, becomes a full-blooded character in the play, complete with relentless knocking sounds that become louder and louder as time progresses and Azell ingratiates himself into Abasiama's life. The conclusion finds Abasiama ridding herself of all of Disciple's belongings from the basement, which rids her of the knocking sounds, too.

While more plays about the African diaspora in the United State are always welcome and encouraged, the primary problem with both of Udofia's plays is they're too long with subject matter this grim, particularly when they're performed together with one intermission. Many in the audience the night I attended left after runboyrun and this writer felt their pain. Disciple is so clearly mentally unstable it's hard to believe Abasiama would have continued to stay with him. The flashbacks have a monotonous quality to them that undercuts their effectiveness, and the conclusion when Disciple finally tells Abasiama what happened to him when he was a child, while moving, also defies credulity. Similarly, In Old Age grows oppressive with the sound of the house knocking because, again, it goes on too long and is too loud. It's a metaphor, we get it; but scene after scene of it becomes incredibly tedious. Plays shouldn't be hard to sit through, they should inspire us or thrill us or challenge us to think, but they shouldn't tax our physical endurance. The acting and production values of both runboyrun and In Old Age are excellent; there's just too much of both of them.

runboyrun & In Old Age
Through October 13
New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street
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