THOUGHTS: Sojourners at the Magic Theatre

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Abasiama (Katherine Turner) is surprised by Moxie (Jamella Cross) during the graveyard shift at work. (Photo Credit Jennifer Reiley)

I admit that when I first read that Mfoniso Udofia’s Sojourners was part of a 9-play cycle of works about the same Nigerian immigrant family in Texas, my first reaction was wariness. Would this story feel complete or would I feel like I had merely seen a prologue to an unfinished longer tale? Would the characters I was about to meet really be intriguing and complex enough that they’d warrant 8 more stories about them? I needn’t have been concerned. I left the Magic Theatre feeling very much that I had seen a play with a complete narrative arc, yet wanting to know more about the bright, ambitious Abasiama (Katherine Renee Turner), balancing a late-term pregnancy with full-time studies on a Student Visa, her charming but woefully unreliable husband by arranged-marriage Ukpong (Jarrod Smith), the aptly nicknamed teen-prostitute Moxie (Jamella Cross) whom Abasiama befriends at the gas station where she works, and Abasiama’s devout, devoted admirer, the equally aptly named Disciple Ufot (Rotimi Agbabika). While it’s Abasiama’s journey that we follow in this play, all four characters are well realized– sometimes delightful, sometimes maddening, sometimes admirable, sometimes deeply flawed. It is a credit to both the writing and the skill of the actors that I cared about each character even when they were making choices I didn’t agree with. When the charming free-spirit Upkong vows to give up his multi-day benders and buckle down and study, ardently promising his wife “I’ll be the head and you’ll be the neck that turns me,” you want him to mean it as much as he seems to want to mean it. When the brash and unapologetic Moxie— all fierceness and flash— tries to pull off her unlikely dream of getting a job at the gas station convenience store where Abiasama works when she is functionally illiterate, you see her vulnerability and hope that sheer belief and the support of Abiasama is enough to help her achieve her goal. Abiasama herself is often put on a pedestal by other characters, but it is always clear that pedestal is more about what the other characters need her to be for them than who she is. Turner makes sure we see both Abiasama’s rigidity and softness, and in doing so, reveals her to be as infinitely human in her strengths and weaknesses as every other character in the play. Disciple Ufot is the biggest black box, although this is no fault of the actor. His character does not become part of the action until the second act, and the interludes with him in the first half are—for better or for worse— directed in such a way to suggest an otherworldliness. I want to know more about all of the characters in future plays, but his is perhaps the character who feels somewhat unfinished without the context of whatever we will learn in future plays.

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Disciple Ufot (Rotimi Agbabiaka) continues his thesis struggle. Haven’t we all wished we could cure writer’s block by magic or prayer? (Photo Credit Jennifer Reiley)

In this  production, music was used only occasionally to accent dramatic moments and the simple set—a vintage kitchen and living room and a convenience store light board with missing letters —adequately evoke time and place, albeit arguably not Texas specifically. Like any production with strong writing and acting though, Sojourners didn’t need an elaborate set or special effects, and director Ryan Guzzo Purcell was wise to keep the focus on the excellent performances.

This is a compelling story that stays with you after the play is over. I left the theatre deeply uncertain as to whether or not Abasiama had made the correct or even a good choice about the direction her own life would take at the end of the play, but equally uncertain as to what a correct or good choice would have been. If Sojourners is a sample of what Udofia has in store in her 9-play cycle, then she has succeeded in making me intrigued enough to want to see all 9 of them.

Reasons to Go:
•  Superb storytelling on every level.
•  #DiversityOnStage in both theme and casting. This is a play about Nigerian immigrants to the US and features actors of color in all four roles in the play.
•  Diversity behind the scenes: Sojourners was written by the talented up-and-coming Nigerian American playwright Mfoniso Udofia.

Who Should Go: Anyone and everyone, although the story may resonate best with teens and up.

Tips:
• This play is being run in repertory with Udofia’s runboyrun, which looks at the same family 30 years in the future. Either can be seen first, and both work as independent plays, but if you see Sojourners first, I would avoid reading the timeline in the program as it contains a bit of a spoiler.
• It was hard to tell how the blocking on the thrust stage would look from the seats at the sides, and I didn’t notice anyone craning their necks, but I was glad to be seated in the middle section and would recommend picking seats there if you can.
• The theatre is within Fort Mason so be prepared for expensive parking .
• The playwright will be doing a free talkback and reading from her cycle of plays on May 9th at 7pm. Check out the Magic Theatre website for more information!

Themes: the immigrant experience in America in the late 70s, Nigerian-American history, Nigerian history, Nigerian culture, marriage, friendship

Show information: Sojourners is currently playing Tuesday through Sunday in repertory with runboyrun, at the Magic Theatre, Fort Mason Center, 2 Marina Boulevard, Building D, San Francisco. Tickets available on the Magic Theatre website,

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