For many young playwrights, just having one play produced at a major New York non-profit is an accomplishment. Mfoniso Udofia currently has two playing in repertory at New York Theatre Workshop. And, oh wait, those two are part of a nine-play cycle. While August Wilson is known for his 10-play Pittsburgh Cycle, and New York has certainly seen other play cycles, it's not all that common. So it's no surprise that, at the start, Udofia did not intend to write a play cycle. She explained:
"I thought I was writing a singular play, looking at a first generation Nigerian woman who is battling with identity formation because it's so different in the different cultures. You could have a little kid here, three years old, that says: 'My favorite color is blue.' They believe it. They know it. Whereas, in other cultures, they say: 'You don't know who you are until you know who you are and that's later in life.' It's a community notion, not an individual notion. That's what that play The Grove was. Grappling with that difference. From there, I started thinking about what made that first generation Nigerian woman who she was. I started looking at parents and the lineage."
The plays all follow the same family—five the older generation, four the next. At least that is what Udofia has planned. She's only written five so far:
"I started writing one play, then I went to three, then I went to five. Nine has stuck for two or so years—and they are already scaffolded. I know what the cycle will do as a whole."
Udofia, who grew up in Massachusetts and attended Wellesley College, said her career was shepherded by her friends. "I wrote my first play to solve a problem," she said. "I was grappling with a problem. And I wrote it and I just put it away. People around me started sending it out without me."
Now she's here—at NYTW with Sojourners and Her Portmanteau, two plays that follow family matriarch Abasiama. In Sojourners, a young, pregnant Abasiama struggles with the responsibilities of her arranged marriage as her husband becomes seduced by 1970s American culture. Decades later, the full impact of her decision erupts when Abasiama’s family is reunited in Her Portmanteau. Neither of them are the first she wrote of the cycle—that was The Grove, which centers on Adiagha Ufot, the first generation offspring and eldest daughter of the family.
The Playwrights Realm presented Sojourners in New York last year, but performing them in rep has given Udofia inspiration to revise. Tweaks were made to it, and "tectonic shifts" were made to Her Portmanteau (which is in its world premiere) during the rehearsal and preview processes.
But Udofia said you don't have to see them both. "If I've done my job, each stands on its own," she explained. "But with different pairings you see different things." While NYTW is focusing on the matriarchal line of the plays, last year San Francisco's Magic Theatre presented Sojourners with Runboyrun, following the patriarchal line. “Each audience gets something different out of them, the pairings and the plays themselves,” she said.
One day Udofia hopes to see them running together, but that is a long way down the line. She is currently finishing the sixth play, Adia and Clora Snatch Joy. "That process has fed on this process, the interaction of doing it all at once," she said. "I've been blessed already, if anything else comes, it will come."