The sudden re-appearance of a frayed suitcase connects a Nigerian American immigrant with long-suppressed emotional baggage in the West Coast premiere of fast-rising playwright Mfoniso Udofia’s “Her Portmanteau” at Boston Court Pasadena.
It’s a masterfully written, superbly staged drama that defies preconceptions and expectations with a deeply felt perspective on immigration and the unforeseen complications of an identity split between the American melting pot and a rich African heritage.
That cultural rift is elegantly drawn in the opening scene, the meeting between Nigerian traveler Iniabasi (Délé Ogundrian) and the American-born half sister, Adiaha (Omozé Idehenre), who’s late to pick her up at the airport. The stony silence with which Iniabasi meets Adiaha’s flustered excuses leads the latter to believe her guest can only converse in Ibibio, the Nigerian dialect Adiaha understands but can’t speak. Naturally, Iniabasi speaks fluent English — only the first of Adiaha’s faulty assumptions to be challenged.
The real source of Iniabasi’s hostility becomes apparent only when their mother, Abasiama Ufot (Joyce Guy), finally shows up at Adiaha’s apartment.
Parenting does not come easy to Abasiama, a middle-class Nigerian who came to America not out of desperation but to obtain a degree in biology. For reasons depicted in Udofia’s previous play, “Sojourner,” Abasiama chose not to return to Nigeria with her former husband and the newborn Iniabasi; Adiaha was the fruit of her equally complicated second marriage.
Abasiama is the matriarchal figure at the heart of both “Her Portmanteau” and “Sojourner” — and both are part of a projected nine-play, multigenerational chronicle of the Ufots, although calling it a family drama would be like saying August Wilson’s “Pittsburgh Cycle” is about a neighborhood.
That’s not an idle comparison. Playwright Udofia, a first-generation Nigerian American, is a skilled dramatist and an eloquent writer. From Abasiama’s double-stacked word emphasis (praising her “smartsmart” grandson) to Iniabasi’s poetic way of judging elapsed years (“I’ve been aging her with my time then”) and incisive outsider’s critiques (“Being polite is the American way of lying”), Udofia’s dialogue delights with a quirky mix of foreignness and familiarity.
As this fractured family grapples with vast differences in distance, time and culture, it faces a universal challenge: The wishful stories we create for our lives have to give way to harder truths before healing can begin.
I can pretty much guarantee three things about the experience of seeing this play. The first is that because of the dual language and passing references to events told elsewhere, you will miss some details.
The second is that you won’t miss anything important, because director Gregg T. Daniel and his terrific cast never lose their grip on the underlying language of the play — authentic emotion without sentimentality.
The third certainty is that while you may go in thinking you’ll be seeing a play about a someone else’s family, by the end you’ll be thinking about your own.
♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦
Where: Boston Court Pasadena, 70 N. Mentor Ave., Pasadena
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; ends June 30
Info: (626) 683-6801, www.BostonCourtPasadena.org
Running time: 1 hour, 50 minutes
See all of our latest arts news and reviews at latimes.com/arts.