The New York Theatre Workshop, led by James Nicola, ranks very high among those irreplaceable off-Broadway institutions that, to use Donald Trump’s famed expression, prime the pump delivering fresh voices to our stages and invaluable perspective on our times. Here is where Rent was launched, as well as Once, Caryl Churchill’s devastating Mad Forest and David Bowie’s last project, the astonishing Lazarus. Often those voices are exposed early in their development, given sharp support by Nicola and his team, and that is the case with the double bill of Sojourners and Her Portmanteau, related plays and part of a planned 9-work cycle by Mfoniso Udofia, a first-generation Nigerian-American playwright with a lot on her mind and a seriously compelling storytelling gift.
Sojourners is set in late 1970s Houston, where Abasiama (Chinasa Ogbuagu) is very pregnant, unhappily coping in her arranged marriage to layabout scamp Ukpong, and trying to finish college while earning minimum wage at a gas station minimart. Ukpong sings fervently to his unborn child, but he’s seduced by the action, social ferment and urban thrills easily available to a charmer such as he; Abasiama knows she can’t depend on him, and the violent kicking of the child growing inside her seems to portend a difficult future.
She finds solace, if somewhat reluctantly, in the friendship of Moxie (Lakisha Michelle May), a barely literate teenage prostitute with a mouth on her and a love of Snickers bars, and Disciple Ufot (Chinaza Uche), calm, devoted, serious, persistent. Overcoming mutual distaste for one another, they become Abasiama’s defenders, with longterm consequences. (Sojourners had its world premiere in January, 2016 at The Playwrights Realm, which gets an “in association with” producing credit on the plays, which are being presented at the Signature on a rotating schedule.)
Her Portmanteau moves ahead 30 years to a small New York City apartment, where Iniabasi (Adepero Oduye) has arrived from Lagos to meet, for the first time, her younger half-sister Adiagha (Ogbuagu) and the mother Abasiama (now played by Jenny Jules) she hasn’t seen since infancy. Tension is high and so are expectations, as Adiagha’s initial excitement about welcoming the newcomer is soon dashed by Iniabsi’s ice-cold vibe and silent treatment.
There are the usual hoary dramatic devices to remove one figure from the scene and allow the other two to have at it, but that takes nothing away from the emotional jolt of the confrontations that ensue, especially between mother and older daughter. If you have seen the Tony nominated play A Doll’s House, Part 2, you may find an eerie echo here., as damaged parent and child dig into one another with ever-deepening surgical urgency.
Udofia isn’t yet fully in command of the dramatic tools available to her, and there’s little poetry in her characters. But they’re fully fleshed out people it’s easy to connect with, in Ed Sylvanus Iskandar’s precisely calibrated staging. I’ll remember this writer’s name and the people she’s introduced me to.
Derren Brown is an ex-lawyer and Olivier Award-winning mentalist whose sole purpose is to astonish, and perhaps scare the crap out of, you. He may look you over, if you’re a luckless audience volunteer, and recite some extremely personal (but not too personal) bit of information like, say, the passcode to your bank card or the real plans you have after graduate school that just may not be what your parents have in mind. He may fling a Frisbee or three into the audience at the Atlantic Theatre, and order them thrown around again and yet again to satisfy us in the belief that the final recipients are truly, randomly chosen for the next bit of impossible fact extraction.
I can’t tell you more than that about Derren Brown: Secret because, you know, the title and all. The show bears some similarities to Helder Guimarães and Derek DelGaudio’s Nothing To Hide, the duo that Neil Patrick Harris presented four years ago (coincidentally, DelGaudio has returned with In And Of Itself, a solo show staged by Frank Oz, that’s now running across town at the Daryl Roth Theatre).
The common technique is to do everything possible to unnerve you by appearing to remove any possibility of audience plants while unlocking secrets of the mind with the same triumphal glee that an escape artist shows when emerging from a skein of solid steel chains and unbreachable locks. If you need to know how it’s done, you have my deepest sympathy.