Mfoniso Udofia’s ‘Portmanteau’ Offers a Rare View of Immigration in America

Moments before rehearsal begins for “Her Portmanteau,” Kimberly Scott is incredulous as she discusses the play with her two castmates and director. “It’s all in there!” she says of the source material. “You got any questions, go back to the plays.”

The “plays,” of course, are the Ufot Cycle, a planned suite of nine interconnected works that, over the course of decades, examine a Nigerian family after settling in America. They’re by Mfoniso Udofia, a rising star playwright with ties to ACT who will see “Her Portmanteau” run from Friday, Feb. 15, through March 31 at the institution’s Strand Theater.

Scott has recently parsed through Udofia’s sprawling work as part of her preparation to play matriarch Abasiama in “Her Portmanteau,” which takes place almost entirely in a single living room scene, as Abasiama and her two daughters confront old wounds. But unlike most plays, the cast’s material extends far beyond this single script and into the vast tapestry that Udofia has built.

“Usually, my thing is about my instinct,” Scott says, “but it’s all in there.”

Udofia is not present, but she was at the Strand the week before for the first week of rehearsals, a homecoming of sorts that is hard for her to describe. Before Udofia had begun taking on this storytelling endeavor — creating the kind of appropriately expansive canvas that observes what it means to uproot and migrate a life and history — she was first at ACT, herself, several years earlier, studying in its graduate program as an actress. It was the first of two dramatic career changes.

Her first shift came during Udofia’s undergrad work at Wellesley College, where she was studying to become a lawyer. Yet, in the midst of her course load she was confronted with a simple question: “What brings you joy?”

The answer wasn’t law. At least, law didn’t give her as much pleasure as did opera and theater. So after graduation, Udofia refocused and earned her master’s degree through ACT. Her next move was to New York, to pursue acting. But the opportunities for Udofia were sparse, unless she wanted to play a “thick, darker-skinned black woman.” This was in 2009, after the recession and before conversations about truly dimensional diverse casting were becoming part of the zeitgeist.

By Brandon Yu for DATEBOOK

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