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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Chinasa Ogbuagu with Hubert Point-Du Jour
Photo by Chasi Annexy

Finding yourself is difficult enough without other people getting in the way. It's those collisions, though, that make life interesting and vital, and supercharge the simple story at the heart of Mfoniso Udofia's new play Sojourners, which just opened at the Peter Jay Sharp Theater in a production of The Playwrights Realm. For the four characters caught in one enormous interlocking web of personal confusion and evolution, it's not easy to maintain a relationship with themselves, each other, or with God, but they all come to understand just how important all three are—a message that, through Udofia's understated but often poetic writing, is communicated to you, too.

What is made abundantly clear, in the writing as well as in the performances and the direction (by Ed Sylvanus Iskandar), is that these lives, unassuming though they may appear, are anything but ordinary. Abasiama (Chinasa Ogbuagu), better known as Ama, is a woman from Nigeria who is now studying biology at a university in Houston; she's also nine months pregnant, which is complicating her job as a clerk at a gas station mini-mart. Her husband, Ukpong (Hubert Point-Du Jour), is an economics major with a penchant for partying and playing Smokey Robinson records. Moxie (Lakisha Michelle May), whom Ama meets at work, is a young girl with a taste for (and, it's employed, employment with) bad men. And Disciple (Chinaza Uche) is a particularly devoted follower of Jesus Christ who's searching for his mission.

Of course, they're all searching for something, whether they know it or not. And when Ukpong vanishes from home, leaving Ama behind to learn that he's not the man or the student he's long claimed to be, the remaining three are launched together to learn the truth the hard way. Ama needs Moxie's, well, moxie, and Disciple's stability, but thinks she can balance their personalities. Moxie and Disciple both draw on Ama's considerable strength, but in ways that may make them incompatible with each other. When the baby comes, who would make the better guardian for it and its apparently abandoned mother?

These aren't huge questions in the grand scheme of things, though Udofia has little trouble making them dramatic. She does this primarily by way of the delicious dialogue, which could not better differentiate the characters who speak it, and thus the unique stations they occupy in this universe. Ama is an unapologetic realist who painstakingly balances her act of assimilating into her new home country. Meanwhile, Ukpong's hopeless romantic is, through his disjointed yet perceptive utterances, revealed as hopeless at maintaining an upright existence. "This man got up there, round midnight, to light the altar on fire on how we have to live and love and that that is the sole purpose of life," he relates excitedly about a rally he attended. "It blew my mind. The whole process blew my mind to shards. This kind of peace. This kind of living."

Chinasa Ogbuagu with with Lakisha Michelle May and Chinaza Uche
Photo by Chasi Annexy

Moxie's patois, by contrast, is unquestionably that of the streets. "So you understand it all and stuff?," she asks, staring dumbfounded at one of Ama's textbooks. "Like what it is? I mean, I get biology. But all book biology? Sheiiit. How much biology can there be?"

Meanwhile, Disciple is all about his cause. "Sistah?" he intones, as he does everything, as if it were a prayer. "Has God forgotten that he once knew me? He’s forgotten our language?! You need to whisper what I said to him in his ear, with your sweet voice. And you must tell him, that I need it. This place must yield something good."

It's easy—and blissful—to get lost in the symphony that results from their speech, alone and to each other, and some of the most thrilling scenes occur when Udofia unleashes two characters on each other and just lets them talk; you get no clearer picture of the conflict between Ama and Ukpong than their interactions, and it seem as though genuine fire will erupt when Moxie and Disciple finally butt heads, alone, in the second act.

If Sojourners has a significant problem, it's that Udofia is less adept at crafting action and events that match the beauty of her words. Very little, in fact, happens during the play, and the few things that do occur are not enough to completely support a two-hour-and-15-minute running time; the dialogue is good enough to prevent the show from dragging, but it has few other tangible sources of motion. This, in turn, hampers the staging; Iskandar does what he can to push things along, making full use of Jason Sherwood's four-sided rotating set (each character has his or her own domain), but too often even scenes that sing with grand melodies feel leaden.

The cast, however, is unfailingly wonderful. Ogbuagu is heartbreaking as Ama: stalwart and serious, but with a lively passion underneath that defines her as a woman of infinite potential and dreams, and an absorbing fulcrum around whom the action can turn. Point-Du Jour's blithe and loving attitude is behind an Ukpong that's charming and yet unsettling, the hero and the cad all in one. As Disciple, Uche is winning in the almost terrifying commitment he brings to a man of God fighting an unusual set of demons. And May is delightful and hilarious as Moxie, frantic, almost unhinged, in her movement, letting us see an essential innocent who's cloaked in the desperation of a woman who can't escape the circumstances she's created for herself.

The competition between individual action and divine influence is one of the guiding principles of Sojourners, even if it the play as a whole tends to stop short of the wrenching emotional excitement to which it keeps promising to build. If this isn't always ideal, that could be intentional: This is the first in a series of at least five plays that chart Abasiama and her family across the generations, so the payoff could well be a slow-burn one that pays off as time passes and changes are effected, in both her birth and adopted homes. Assuming that's the case, the first, tentative step that greater journey takes here is one well worth following.

Through February 13
Peter Jay Sharp Theatre, 416 West 42nd Street, 4th floor
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: TicketCentral

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