How Two Mfoniso Udofia Plays Became One Night of Theater

"Our idea has been to let the plays shine, to let the playwright shine, and to support each other."

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The mesmerizing Patrice Johnson Chevannes in a scene from "In Old Age," one of two Mfoniso Udofia plays now running at New York Theatre Workshop.

When searching for comparisons to playwright Mfoniso Udofia’s monumental, nine-part, still-in-progress The Ufot Cycle, I have heard it said in quiet rooms that the work of the late August Wilson often comes to mind. In a reductive way, perhaps so: swap Pittsburgh and the writing of one play for each 20th-century decade in favor of such settings as Worcester, MA, and Nigeria, and there you are. White people, oy.

For anyone, however, who might invest the three-and-a-half hours and an open mind to visit two of the nine plays, runboyrun and In Old Age, currently running at Off-Broadway’s indispensable New York Theatre Workshop, it would become clear that what is reductive is also wrong. Not just because comparing Udofia to America’s most lauded late-20th-century playwright of color is the kind of thing lazy white theater critics (and audiences) might do, but because Udofia’s style is stridently, insistently an assertion of agency, of individualism all her own. The unchained, unapologetic lyricism might ring familiar, but Udofia infuses a deft magical realism that Wilson, for the most part, spurned: her work almost contains a sermon-like calling to our higher souls and selves. It is true, one should add, that Udofia’s  detours into the fantastical and the subliminal can be a challenge, as the endless banging noises that emanate from the floor during almost all of In Old Age might illustrate. At the same time, even at its toughest or most alienating, Udofia’s work, as a certain Arthur Miller character once said, must be paid.

Consider this description of the plays now at NYTW:

In runboyrun, Disciple and Abasiama Ufot have been living the same day over and over again for decades until the dam breaks and time rushes forward while also reeling backwards. They must uncover years of memories and cross great distances to find each other and unearth the roots of their marriage. In Old Age follows Abasiama far into the future as she learns the true nature of love just as life takes a new turn.

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Not strictly realism, to be sure, yet the characters and contexts and situations featured on stage all plays as inevitably, astonishingly real. This is high-level writing that the American theater needs.

The question in my mind, meanwhile, was how a director is to grapple with plays that are as mysterious as they are accessible. This is what brought me into a conversation with Loretta Greco and Awoye Timpo, who directed runboyrun and In Old Age, respectively. Below are excerpts from our talk, including how they manage to share one actor in the extraordinary Patrice Johnson Chevannes, who is on stage almost all night playing the pivotal role of Abasiama in both plays, and in two different phases of life.

For tickets to runboyrun and In Old Age (which runs through Oct. 13), click here. Don’t miss it.

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Awoye Timpo. Photo: Hollis King.

Leonard Jacobs: How did you approach the direction of these plays — meaning, did you do so together or separately?

Loretta Greco: Let’s see. Well, Awoye, we haven’t seen each other since —

Awoye Timpo: — our last rehearsal! I think what’s so funny is how, in co-directing this show, it has worked out perfectly because Loretta is an amazing and hilarious collaborator with a deep history with Mfoniso and this cycle she’s writing. I started working with her on readings of the cycle five or six years ago, and she’s been a collaborative partner for many years as well. So both of us are deeply invested and have great love and respect for Mfoniso. Our idea has been to let the plays shine, to let the playwright shine, and to support each other.

LG: It could have been a recipe for a disaster but Awoye and I have like temperaments; we know these plays, we know the cycle and we know her. We’re both also kind of warriors in terms of new plays and how they work. I think our work ethic really binds us. And we’ve shared an actor in Patrice. One of the things that the three of us agreed on very quickly was that since we’d share an actor, it meant we were going to have to be in lockstep.

AW: We also knew we’d have one design team for the whole process. So as we thought about the physical landscape as well as the text, we developed a vocabulary together.

LG: Andrew Boyce, our designer, in effect designed two shows. They are different plays, and they do have different demands physically. So what Awoye and I talked about was what are the essential elements of each play; what are the specific things outside of those elements required; and all the while trying to think of it through the eyes of the audience.

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LJ: Which meant that you were involved in each other’s work or not so much?

AW: When we first first talked with New York Theatre Workshop about this production, we talked about different ways to present — but also rehearse — the piece. And we did at one point ask ourselves, OK, are we directing both pieces together? Loretta and I realized that for each of us to have singular attention on one play would be the most effective way to approach the rehearsal process. So we made two separate plays part of one event, and we lent each other all of the support we could whenever there was an opportunity.

LG: I would add that we very lovingly discussed it together. And then we said to Mfoniso as well as [NYTW Artistic Director] Jim Nicola — well, I just didn’t know what it looked like for us to direct both plays. Neither is easy; each deserves someone at the helm, very clearly. I should also say that it was important because each of us could try to get different things from Mfoniso. I produced her plays at [San Francisco’s] Magic Theatre, but hadn’t directed either one. Awoye and I both knew there would be some revision work, so we could both nurture Mfoniso, allowing her to be super-collaborative in terms of the writing and, as I say, to ask what the shared things were. This is where Jim and [Associate Artistic Director] Linda Chapman came in so brilliantly, experiencing the plays as fresh eyes and ears, able to hear the sonic echoes between each play.

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Loretta Greco. Photo: Erin Gilley.

LJ: How do you share an actor — let alone one who’s a pivot point for both plays and almost never offstage?

LG: Patrice rose to the occasion, obviously. In Old Age started rehearsals first; she was inside the end of her character’s life before she jumped into the play that occurs earlier in the life of her character. It was fascinating that Patrice knew so much of her character’s decades before we started with runboyrun. We also went back to the text of Mfoniso’s Sojourners and Her Portmanteau, just to try to seed some of the other years. I tried not to say much that would in any way inhibit or inform adversely what would happen in In Old Age, but we did have to with what Patrice’s physical center would be.

AW: It was incredible — the olympic nature of the process we put upon Patrice. Her mind was always working on some level throughout both processes, including super-tactical things like learning the plays and the blocking. My sense is that once we moved into the theater, once we could run the entire evening and for Patrice to feel runboyrun as well as In Old Age — I mean, she transforms 25 years during one 18-minute intermission! Loretta and I, I think, planted seeds that led to flowers that bloomed.

LG: This is a Lear. It’s big, so we’re kind of in awe of what she’s doing. What she does is the kind of transformation you can only find in the theater.

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LJ: What didn’t you know about these plays before you directed them that you know now?

LG: Because Mfoniso is so specific, and because she knew and trusted that we were going to give her what she wanted, I think it allowed for us to say, OK, this moment is filmic — can we figure out how to manifest it a different way? Can we show you what it might be? Mfoniso has talked about runboyrun as the “relentless play” of the cycle; rarely do you see, at the center of a play, a protagonist at that level of trauma for that long. It’s one thing to see it intellectually, I mean, but finding the actor who can fulfill that emotional viability of Disciple is another. Getting in the room and trying to reach that real depth of trauma as it manifests in the play was a beautiful process but one where we didn’t have all the answers all along. I had to calibrate other moments so the trauma of Disciple was authentic. Chiké [Johnson] is an extraordinary actor. I didn’t know Disciple’s trauma fully until I started to work with him.

AW: This idea of precision is a powerful one in these plays, and Mfoniso is 100 percent a precise writer. For In Old Age, the precision of her musicality and, really, the relationship between Disciple and Abasiama was there to be discovered. It helped to clarify the thing that is so deceptive about In Old Age, in that it’s really a four-character play — Abasiama, Azell, Disciple and the floors.

LJ: What one question would each of you ask Abasiama if she were a real person?

LG: Oh my, that’s a difficult question. I think I’d ask, “Did you feel it was all worth it?” One of the things about the play is the reminder that parents inherently give selflessly so their children can have something better. For Abasiama, for this immigrant family from Nigeria, I think she thought she’d become educated and go back to Nigeria. She stays for her kids.

AW: This question makes me think of Adia and Clora [from Udofia’s Adia and Clora Snatch Joy] and women ancestors who appear to kind of look over their children. I’d ask her “How are they doing?” I’d really like to know.