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Her Portmanteau
American Conservatory Theater
Review by Patrick Thomas | Season Schedule

Also see Patrick's review of Hamilton

Kimberly Scott and Aneisa J. Hicks
Photo by Kevin Berne
There is a very British saying that "there's no such thing as bad weather—only inappropriate clothing." So when Iniabasi (Eunice Woods) arrives from her home in Nigeria at JFK airport in the dead of winter wearing a thin windbreaker over a sleeveless top, silky slacks, and open-toed flats with no socks, it's clear her expectations of life in America will disappoint her—and her sartorial choices won't even be the half of it.

Iniabasi has come to the United States to reunite with her mother Abasiama (Kimberly Scott), but almost from the moment she steps off the plane, her expectations go unmet. Instead of her mother coming to meet her as planned, it's her half-sister Adiaha (Aneisa J. Hicks) who shows up. And rather than continuing on to her mother's house in Massachusetts, plans have changed and Iniabasi will stay in New York with Adiaha, in her cozy one-bedroom apartment, marvelously accomplished by scenic designer David Israel Reynoso in this American Conservatory Theater production. Iniabasi has left her son back in Lagos, bringing with her only a worn red suitcase and a small green handbag, both of which she keeps clutched tight.

The suitcase is not quite a true portmanteau, as referenced in the title of this play by Mfoniso Udofia. Her Portmanteau is the fourth play in her Ufot family cycle that tells the story of generations of the Ufots, both in Nigeria and America. (Another play in the cycle, In Old Age, opens later this month at the Magic Theatre.) A portmanteau is composed of two hinged compartments, whereas Iniabasi's case has only one. Still, it's the other, more often-used definition of "portmanteau" that comes into play here—that of elements of two words coming together to form a single, new word. Think affluenza, bromance, or smog. Portmanteau is itself a portmanteau, mashing up the French words porter (to carry) and manteau (cloak).)

Here, the portmanteau is represented by the myriad physical, emotional, cultural and familial mixing going. The family is a blended one, with Abasiama having two daughters from two different fathers, which brings the two half-sisters into proximity (and conflict) in the tiny New York apartment. There is also the mashup of Nigerian and American cultures, and the use of two different languages—English and Ibibio—to tell the story. (Approximately 20-30% of the dialogue is in Ibibio, but somehow this is never a problem, and in fact adds to the texture of the play, as well as reinforcing the portmanteau challenges of clashing cultures.)

Like a suitcase overstuffed to the point that it becomes impossible to close, the three characters in Her Portmanteau struggle to connect with each other, despite the fact that they are mother-daughter and half-sister-half-sister. Iniabasi, who has been transported into an unfamiliar world, has thrown up walls of judgment and snark that Adiaha and Abasiama try—with very little success—to breach. Adiaha is not having her expectations met, either. She has graciously offered to let her half-sister stay with her, made traditional Nigerian food as a welcome meal, and offered Iniabasi warm socks and a sweater, but receives little in return but disdain and haughtiness from her older sibling. For her part, Abasiama is caught up in self-recrimination for a variety of what she perceives as sins—from the minor infraction of being unable to retrieve her daughter from the airport to more serious parental lapses.

But there are no lapses from the cast or creative team bringing this work to ACT's Strand Theater. In the opening scene, Eunice Woods has the jittery energy of an addict seeking a hit of their favored drug, then morphing elegantly into a powerful portrayal of a fish out of water struggling to discover how to process oxygen in an alien environment. In the play's denouement, her tears flow freely as she finally opens her emotional portmanteau to discover there's far more room inside than she had been letting on—or perhaps even understood. As her sister, Aneisa J. Hicks is nothing short of brilliant. She exhibits a subtle precision of movement and expression that combines with perfect comic timing and a vulnerability that makes you want to rush up on stage and let her know her sisterly love will not go unnoticed or unappreciated. Kimberly Scott delivers the goods, as well, showing us a character who has seen her share of disappointment—some of it self-inflicted—yet refuses to allow that disappointment to overwhelm her, even when she is collapsed in sobs, realizing just how much she has "come to understand the importance of memory."

Technically flawless (with special kudos to sound designer Jake Rodriguez who clearly sweated every detail, including letting us hear the faint, tinny sound of a man ranting on the other end of a cell phone conversation), Her Portmanteau is ready to accompany you on a journey with a family struggling—and mostly succeeding—to deal with their own baggage.

Her Portmanteau, through March 31, 2019, at ACT's Strand Theater, 1127 Market Street, San Francisco CA. Tickets range from $15-$110, and are available at

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