“Her Portmanteau” carries the baggage of a broken Nigerian-American family

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Shanon Harris; director Laiona Michelle; Mattilyn Rochester Kravitz; & Shannon Harris sitting next to each other smiling at the camera
(L to R) Shanon Harris; director Laiona Michelle; Mattilyn Rochester Kravitz; & Shannon Harris. Photo courtesy of George Street Playhouse

Her Portmanteau is part of a nine-play series

New Brunswick’s George Street Playhouse opens its 2022-2023 season with the long-awaited production of Her Portmanteau by playwright Mfoniso Udofia, directed by the Playhouse’s Artistic Associate, Laiona Michelle. According to an interview with Ms. Udofia in the program, Her Portmanteau is part of a nine-play series entitled The Ufot Family Cycle dealing with the history of Nigerian immigration to the United States through the stories of one multi-generational family.

To cut to the chase, Her Portmanteau is a play that seems not able to stand on its own without the information that quite possibly might be in the plays that chronologically precede it but is not presented here. This puts the audience at a disadvantage throughout the play and makes it more difficult to empathize with the three characters we meet in it.

We meet Iniabasi (Shannon Harris) at JFK Airport having just arrived, alone, from Nigeria on a bitterly cold January day. She is met there by her half-sister Adiaha (Jennean Farmer) instead of their mother, who has hit traffic delays on the way. This minor change of plans causes Iniabasi to retreat into a shell of sullenness and suspicion. After Iniabasi’s passive-aggressive rebuttal of Adiaha’s attempts to make her feel welcome in her small apartment, mother Abasiama (Mattilyn Rochester Kravitz) arrives, and things quickly spiral downhill. Mutual resentments and regrets and accusations bounce among the trio as the Americanized Abasiama and Adiaha run up against the Nigerian mores of Iniabasi.

Harris is striking in portraying Iniabasi’s lifelong feelings of abandonment and betrayal by her mother. Iniabasi uses her status of being eldest child in an attempt to induce subservient guilt in both mother and half-sister. She protects her frightened inner child from fresh disappointments of her own making while she agonizes over temporarily leaving her only son with relatives back in Nigeria.

That agony is echoed by Kravitz’ Abasiama, whose decision not to return to Nigeria with her first husband and daughter and subsequent inability to bring her daughter back sooner are deeply buried pains. As for Farmer’s Adiaha, she is caught up unwillingly in Abasiama’s changing arrangements for Iniabasi and having to deal with Iniabasi’s presumptions of her familiarity with family history and cultural expectations.

Farmer successfully walks the tightrope between affection for and frustration with her mother and half-sister, using a snarky, ironic delivery in some of her lines. All three women have been skillfully guided by director Michelle.

However, the material given them by playwright Udofia is too full of missing history and characters that are less human than attitudinal to give them much assistance. Granted, I am neither of African heritage nor a woman, and I acknowledge my lack of awareness regarding issues touching on those groups. However, George Street Playhouse’s audiences have been given a tough play to understand without any in-play guidance to help them.

In reviewing The Caretaker at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey recently, it was suggested that when viewing such a play one is best served not by trying to make sense of the words while watching but to let the emotions of the play sweep over them. I would recommend, especially during scenes where the dialog is in the Nigerian language Ibibio instead of English, doing the same with Her Portmanteau.

George Street Playhouse is making the effort to present their audiences with plays set outside the audience’s experience and thus increasing their understanding of the world around them. In this, they are to be commended and encouraged. However, Her Portmanteau, which has been highly-anticipated since its postponement from last season, may prove to be a bit much to handle, especially as a season opener. I would recommend Her Portmanteau to only the most serious play-goers, especially those looking to have their horizons expanded through theater. They will not be disappointed.

Her Portmanteau is presented by the George Street Playhouse at the Arthur Laurents Theatre in the New Brunswick Performing Arts Center through October 30th. For more information or to purchase tickets, visit georgestplayhouse.org or call 732-246-7717. The performing arts center strongly suggests, but does not require, the wearing of masks inside the building.