First Nighter: Mfoniso Udofia's "Sojourners" Deserves a Welcome Stay

In Sojourners, the stimulating new Playwrights Realm production at Peter Sharp, the first-generation Nigerian-American author Mfoniso Udofia never directly explains the title, but implicitly she lets us know again and again and again.

The word "sojourners" suggests people passing through a place and often, if not usually, as strangers to one another. That's exactly who Udofia's characters are and how they relate between and among themselves--if only temporarily. The result is a microcosmic peek at today's world, where everything is in constantly unsettling transition.

Abasiama (Chinasa Ogbuagu), a twentysomething Nigerian woman studying in the Houston of 1978, is pregnant but not getting much help through the nine months from her Nigerian husband Ukpong (Hubert Pont-Du Jour), who's also supposed to be studying stateside. A large part of their immediately apparent marital problem is that they tied their unraveling knot when her father and his arranged the union.

Neither Abasiama, whom he calls Ama, feels immersed in a love match. Ama wishes she could spend more time with her biology text, while Ukpong is far too caught up in the music of Stevie Wonder, Roberta Flack and peers to care about his schooling.

Things get so bad that Ukpong abandons Ama before she delivers a daughter, and she's left to accept two completely disparate people as friends. The first is a rambunctious hooker called Moxie (Lakisha Michelle May), whom Ama meets at her boring day job. The second is Disciple (Chinaza Uche), another Nigerian studying in Texas with the intention of returning home after he's acquired his degree in communications. That plan, however, is partially interrupted by an increasing infatuation with his countrywoman.

What Udofia wants to probe in Sojourners is the way the four--with an emphasis on Ama, Moxie and Disciple--attempt to form some sort of lasting relationship(s) when it looks as if anything approaching permanence is iffy under current conditions in today's shifting world. In the two acts Udofia uses to lay out her play, she allows the first act to become too relaxed a matter of introducing the characters and their dilemmas. In the second act, the drama builds as Moxie and Disciple enter what becomes nothing less than a competition for Ama's attention.

Ama, now a new mother lying in a hospital bed and trying to come to terms with her changed life, has genuine feelings for both combatants but a belief that what they're offering isn't the solution to a much larger dilemma. When she returns home and finds Ukpong there ready to dispense unacceptable explanations of his behavior but also instantly loving towards his daughter, she confronts her crucial choice--and, as Udofia writes it, not easily.

The manner in which the lives of the four turn on their unsettled axis is ingeniously underlined by Jason Sherwood's set, a square container that from scene to scene stagehands push in eventual 360-degree revolves. The audience sees the living room Ama and Ukpong inhabit, Ama's workplace, the studio where Disciple is writing what looks to be his thesis and Ama's hospital room.

As those various worlds spin, the acting--under Ed Sylvanus Iskandar's understanding direction--is solid. Ogbuagu's Ama is a woman deeply aware of how unmoored her predicaments have left her, and she remains so right up to her final devastating moment alone on stage.

Pont-Du Jour doesn't flinch from portraying Ukpong as the thoroughly callow young man he is, which allows the sudden affection for his daughter to be that much more meaningful. May has fun with the initially sharp-tongued Moxie and yet shows the lost young woman underneath the bluster slowly emerging. Uche's Disciple, a figure who in a lesser interpretation could seem a caricature of an ambitious nerd, comes across as entirely real.

At a time when masses of people are migrating from one country through and to another, Udofia's portrait of three newcomers to American shores and one native trying to find her footing there does amount, as Rick might say in Casablanca, to more than a hill of beans.