A Conversation with Mfoniso Udofia & Ed Sylvanus Iskandar
Mfoniso Udofia and Ed Sylvanus Iskandar are the latest dynamite duo to take over New York Theater Workshop, and this time with two plays, Sojourners and Her Portmanteau, two plays in a nine-play cycle Udofia is writing. We sat down with these dynamic, emerging, and important voices in contemporary American theater to talk about time, family, immigration, and history – all essential themes to the play and their overall work.
Darrel Alejandro Holnes: Thank you for sitting down with me.
Ed Sylvanus Iskandar: Oh, thank you!
DAH: And thank you for having me sit in on your rehearsal today. That was a really great opportunity and privilege. A lot of my first questions are in response to what I saw here in this brief scene that was rehearsed for the last hour. And my first questions is – both of you feel free to jump in – family is essential to the play, so what role does your family play in your process: inspiration, support, obstacle, all of the above?
[Ed and Mfoniso laugh]
ESI: I think because I left home when I was seven to go to boarding school I have been on a fairly consistent life-long journey in terms of defining and redefining for myself what “family” actually means. And family is…not special for me anymore. I still say I go home to Indonesia because my parents are still there, the home I grew up in is still standing, but I think when I say “family” now it feels like it’s about a community of people that I have been lucky enough to be accepted by. And that includes my biological family, but that seems to define for me not only a space emotionally in my life, but also the way I like to work and the kind of work I like to do with an audience watching. Which is really, I think, more than anything driven by the ability to further social connections – real ones. It’s how I conduct my rehearsal process. It’s how I like to let my companies and my car spawn – I’m constantly cooking. I can’t help it. It’s my nervous tick. It’s not a nervous tick. It’s a thing I like to do in order to keep myself grounded. This is actually kind of amazing here because I love working at New York Theater Workshop. There’s a little kitchen that just feels like a home. I really can settle into the rehearsal process in the way that you normally can’t in self-rented or borrowed rehearsal space. What the general managers do, which is really so amazing, is they literally give you the third floor. And you can figure out a way to make it work. And I do think with a play like that and a process like this – two plays together – that my job is to make family out of the people that are most regularly in the room, and to incorporate the designers who will now start to come in and join us in tech. And you know, I’ve come to the realization that once the play opens my job is actually over. And my real job is about making sure that whatever we’ve built together has a foundation to continue.
DAH: Like a family?
DAH: Beautiful! And you, Mfoniso?
Mfoniso Udofia: I write about immigrants, also I’m the child of immigrants. My family’s been instrumental, at least for me, for the creation of these plays. In that my mother has become my biggest champion. When you talk about the child of immigrants and what trajectory is, there’s so many hopes and dreams. My mother looked at me and she was like, You are going to be a lawyer! Propah! You go do that. And so it was a huge thing when all of a sudden I was like, Mommy I’m an artist, and she’s like, No you’re not. At all. And so to turn around because family for me – it’s not as if I have much spread, you know, it’s quite localized. What my mom thinks, what my father thinks, what my brother, my sister – they’re my people here. So there are not many other people. So when my mother turned around and said, “Aye, daughter you’re an artist” it’s like breathing. And so it makes creating these plays…I mean creation in general is plot. So to have that family support, especially when I was wondering for the longest time if I would get it, is incredible for me. And then yes to what Ed said, you’re also building family. But I’m so lucky to have biological family to go, Oh yes, this is a good thing. as I’m building family and being in relation to some incredible artists, some geniuses in their own right. You know? I also have the core support that I find I need in order to write plays about families.
DAH: Sure, sure. And that’s a beautiful thing. Also beautiful, yet just as complicated, is how, in the scene that I observed, love seems to be defined as “mountains of desire, bitter river of burden.” Can you explain what this line means and how that works through the play?
MU: “Mountains of desire and a bitter, bitter river.”
DAH: Yes, that’s quite a line. Care to elaborate?
MU: I’m not sure, and this is where I get … Am I gonna say this? Yea. Sometimes I think American Western love is illogical [laughs]. It’s extraordinarily romantic, and this kind of straight thing. Maybe I’ve watched too many romantic comedies. I probably did and then I went, Ooo this is what love is. And then I was in the middle of it going, This is not love! I don’t know what that thing was. I think love is complicated – is an action, actually. It’s not this thing that just falls on you. And if it does, it doesn’t stay a thing that just falls on you. So, there is, there can be love and burden. I don’t know that it is necessarily a terrible thing. It doesn’t have to be. It doesn’t also have to be a thing that you…You know, you can look at that kind of love, you can go, I choose this. I want it. I walk into it. Or you can look at that and you can be like, I don’t. I can’t do that for now. Because the love I have of myself or my own desire won’t let me carry the burden of the love that I might have for you – it’s complicated. That line of love is complicated and purposefully convoluted. And love and desire, duty and birth date, they went through all my plays and they live side-by-side, because I don’t know if I…I think as an artist myself I’m trying to figure out exactly what the natures of love are. And at any given point, even in my relationship with Ed and relationship with the actors and my relationship with any production company, love is always changing. You know what I mean? So I’m not into the purest feeling of it. And so depending on where you are I think you will hear that line differently.
DAH: Interesting. And Ed, in your vision, of this play and of both plays, how do you see the characters negotiating desire and burden. How do you see those themes working throughout the play?
ESI: They’re not separate. It’s two flipped sides of the same coin, which is also how I think of both plays. I don’t think of them as two separate plays at all because I think the expression of love causes burden. And I think if love is going to be worth anything, it’s going to require that amount of work. I think that…Yes, I think I can say the experience of working on both plays and getting to know Mfoniso as a collaborator, it’s an amazing thing because I find myself challenging my own definition of what love means from the assumption of what I think I’ve given, and continue to find more that I’ve assumed – that I then need to ingest and choose to give more of, in order to actually continue deepening and building. And I can say that that’s probably the most full love I have given an experience. Because the journey of it has been so full and it’s been so expansive.
DAH: I love that word that you used, “journey.” Can you tell us a little about the journey of all nine plays?
MU: [laughing] How much time do we have?
DAH: Can you discuss how what people will see in these two plays are paintings that are part of a larger picture?
MU: So when I started writing, the first play I ever wrote was The Grove – it’s the youngest play and I was writing about the eldest daughter, some immigrants…And she was in the middle of figuring out what identity and duty and love, you know, where those things shred up against each other. Then I realized that in order to understand Mac you have to actually understand from whence she came. And so then from there came, what is now known as Sojourners, which was first called Towards because I knew I going towards something, but I didn’t know what,so that was the title of it. The Grove, then Towards, and then to understand the parents I had to understand the revolution in country and that’s where you get something like runboyrun – which goes back and forth between the Nigerian homeland and now the American resettlement place that they are in. Then from there came my number of nine, which will be five interior plays that follow Abasiama and Disciple Uffat, and the last four are gonna be love plays which follow their children as first generation youth in America or discovering what blackness is without a certain kind of historicity attached to it. Technically these could go on forever, they’re not. I’m gonna end it at nine. A promise that I’ve given to myself that it has to end at nine, but as I’m writing I’m discovering how concerned I am with lineage and I do think that that is something of a very immigrant mentality too. Like now that I’m here, what does “forward” actually mean on soil that is not my historical soil. So I don’t know if that explains the question, but that is at least the scope of the project.
DAH: Yeah. And I think that’s definitely what people need. I’m also an immigrant. So I absolutely understand what you’re saying about lineage. And in thinking about that I recall how the character played by Chinasa has a line about the baby’s name and time. Time must certainly play an important role in this play and in any sort of nine-part series, as you just explained,, that follows this family over generations. Why write about time? And let’s broaden that and also say, why write about lineage? Why bring that to the contemporary American stage?
MU: It was particularly important for me to write about West African, Nigerian, Ibibio, migration here and what lineage is. In my culture you actually count where you’re from, you hold it. You come from compound culture. You know your grandparents, you know the history of your great-grandparents, and your great-great – which is very, very, very different somehow, than what I find happening here, and I think we might be in the middle of a change. It’s like more 32-year-olds are staying at home with mom, you know. There’s a shift starting to happen. However, we don’t build community and lineage that way here. I see my people from home being able to count their history. Lineage is important for me, because when you come from that culture and you come into this culture, what do you retain and how? It’s as simple as, in one of the plays, Abasiama and Upem, you know, they’re fighting to figure out how to make fufu here. And they’re going to get products that are not yam in order to do it. So it’s fighting to figure out: How do I make lineage here now that it’s different than the way it was back home and I’m not going back home?
DAH: Are those some of the struggles you’ve faced?
MU: It’s some of the struggles that I’ve watched my people face. And yes, I can implicate myself here and I am interested in this because I have heard the stories of grandmothers and great-grands and my great-great who is this Big Man. And I wanna be able to pass some of that to my children as well, so I want to answer the question, what is that new tradition that I need to make here, in a different space, for me to carry on that culture?
DAH: And is that something that resonates with you Ed, as to why you were drawn to these projects? Is it also something that you can relate to personally?
ESI: What specifically?
DAH: This idea of time, lineage, and how it’s negotiated between the characters – what we carry maybe, from one generation to the next.
ESI: Yes and no. Because my relationship to time and lineage is very different for all the reasons we chose to work together. I am an incredibly linear person and everything about how I negotiate achievement, finishing, and construction is linear and very logical. And one of the very first things Mfoniso said – I’m paraphrasing – to me in one of our earlier conversations, before we committed to this play together, is the notion that for her time is a spiral and time is relative and your experience of time is completely insular and about how it is you understanding how to listen to yourself and how to contextualize yourself within the definitions of time of those around you. And I can relate to that very deeply. Although it still is interesting because it’s not necessarily natural in my thinking process. But I came to the scene in New York and created many long-form pieces, which is something I’m very interested in. The average run time with a show I’ve done in New York is typically six-plus hours. And I learned over the process of making those plays that an audience’s experience of six hours does not mean the same thing as an actual experience of six hours depending, of course, on your choice of activity within those. To be even more simplistic in that particular analogy, I have sat and watched plays that are sixty minutes that felt much longer and ones that are six hours that can speed by. So that is, I think, where we connect. And it’s also where we differ because my natural instincts normally take me to a place where I want to move forward when Mfoniso is still in a place of thought. And I think that is both our strength and our challenge. And we’re guilty of it in this relationship together.
DAH: Considering what we’ve just discussed, what do you hope the audience walks away with after seeing these plays? And I’m sure the list of things is endless, but specifically thinking about time, lineage, maybe time as a spiral, as linear – what are you hoping they walk away with at the end of the day?
MU: Multitiered. These plays aren’t just about time and lineage. The subject is something a bit more political. I hope that the audience walks away with a more nuanced imagination regarding the lives immigrant bodies lead on American soil. I also hope that people walk away a little shaken by how quick they are to potentially judge and assess someone’s motivation when they are within that struggle. Like the pairing of Sojourners and Her Portmanteau. Some of the weeping I’ve seen people do about what Abasiama does at the end of that play without understanding what Abasiama is going through to then maybe come back in Her Portmanteau and get even more information. Perhaps we can nuance-out what bodies of color do in moments of struggle. I hope that people will actually get up and go out and read some books. Because people don’t read books.
DAH: A couple titles?
MU: Ben Okri’s The Famished Road, Chinua Achebe’s There Was A Country and Things Fall Apart, Helen Oyeyemi’s Icarus Girl and the way in which she’s constructing fairy tale stories from other mythologies, which is part of what’s happening here as well. And then even just researching: exactly where is Nigeria? Where are the Ibibio people? Do I know these people? And why haven’t I even thought to think and ask about who and what and where they were? So, those are some of my hopes.
DAH: So, Chinese-Indonesian director with American training, Nigerian-American playwright, is the global perspective an American perspective? This should be a prompt for you to discuss trends in contemporary American theater, perspectives in a contemporary American theater, and what it means to have creators – playwright and director – with these different backgrounds in that space.
MU: Do you want to go first before I go? This is a complicated one.
ESI: I could try. I might be better able to answer this question by posing a response to the previous one. I’ve been thinking, a lot in the past two weeks especially, about the gift of being able to work on Sojourners a second time. It’s something that I have not had a great deal of experience in doing – having an opportunity to revisit and build upon and advance from and learn through. And what’s most interesting to me is in this second attempt at turning the story of Sojourners, is I find myself continuously letting go everything I imposed upon the play. And I find myself reaffirming the nuance in the text and the nuance in the stage direction.
That I was not able to fully comprehend the last time. Which also reveals a level of re-commitment and reveals an actual trust in what’s on the page that I feel I did not have the first time. Because my response to the play initially was, Surely this is a Nigerian A Doll’s House [by Henrik Ibsen], because my cultural framing is Western. And I feel the conversation I had with the play initially, even though I fully believed that I had advanced beyond the conversation that I actually did have was about trying to figure out how it fit within a Western construction. I honored it’s variation, I honored it’s uniqueness, but I do think my basic map in my head, or through my gut, was in comparison to linearity and a Western dramaturgy I have become used to, not just because of training, but because of the way a play looks on the page.
And what I feel the gain of this experience has been for me is, a further understanding of A) the basic truth that when we need to write something that it’s all intentional – which is something I fully love so much. And there I think she is similar to Ibsen. You ignore a stage direction and a word or a punctuation mark at your peril. And B) I also then fully understand that the play can only fully do its work and and fully realize its impact if it’s staged from the perspective of that trust.
It’s not that I didn’t believe I trusted the play last time. I would never sign on to a play that I don’t trust, or a voice that I don’t trust or a person I don’t trust. But it’s a higher level of trust that I’ve developed in the interim. And it is linked to what I now understand I can be more intentional about on the stage. And I find everything is stripped down in a gorgeous way. There’s just less of everything. There’s less space. I think I’m trying to make, in between scenes, to try and foreground story that is always useful, but may not be necessary because I was afraid that the story that’s in the text, wasn’t enough. And I find myself doing less in the scenes themselves – in a fairly radical way.
The scene that you experienced watching in rehearsal, previously does not look a thing like that. It has changed from a scene about a woman moving within her home and negotiating how it is to leave the door, to a scene in which this woman has no inkling to the choice that would take her to the door at all. And so has become a scene in which it’s two people on a couch. And that is also I think the right way to frame what I now believe fundamentally is my job, which is to construct every scene in such a way that the audience can listen.
The text is so rich it is outrageous how much work I have to do before rehearsing to actually get fully on top of it. And I suddenly realize that is also the level of attention I’m asking for from an audience. So if I’m not allowing them to tune into the auditory context of the physical picture, I’ve not done my job. I’ve created, successfully, distractions rather than amplifications, which was my original intention. So I do believe my intentions have always been sincere, but I do know how much I have learned.
DAH: Mfoniso, sometimes people say that the United States is a nation of immigrants. This play, and also our conversation so far has also discussed the idea of immigration and what that means and what those stories are. So my question to you now is, is the immigrant story inherently an American story? And is the American story essentially an immigrant story? Are Sojourners and Her Portmanteau inherently American stories?
MU: Am I gonna say some of these stigmas out loud? Yes. America has some work to do. And I do think yes, America is a country chocked full of immigrants that after maybe the third or fourth generation develop the worst case of amnesia and forget. And then we’re somehow cycling from an immigrant nation to a violently xenophobic one within the same – it’s a vicious spiral that is almost nonsensical. What kind of peculiar American amnesia is this? And so it’s like we have to constantly teach ourselves to remember, which is part of the plays, what it is to remember to not forget. Because we are a country of immigrants and that makes us special.
Ed’s sight is different than my sight; it’s different than your sight; and the way I look at the story is different than the way Ed will, or the way somebody else will. And as a nation of immigrants, we also have to be a nation of plural ideology. And that’s what I feel like America doesn’t do very well. There’s something else that happens as amnesia trips us up and then we become set in this weird non-porose American way. And so we should be. We are a nation of immigrants.
And it becomes a real issue for me when I don’t understand why I’m not seeing more plural stories on the American stage. Why me and Ed together – myself creating this play, and Ed setting it up from page to stage is just this radical, amazing thing. When actually that’s the thing. And why haven’t we been taught earlier how we shred up against each other? That our gazes are different? Why is this learning happening in what feels like a very singular narrow way? Why isn’t this the American theater normative, if we are a nation of immigrants and if theater is a representational art form – which we claim theater to be – because what Ed is talking about is true and is particularly salient in our case. There are two different gazes; we have read two different cannons; we have two different histories, none of them – I don’t know that we should be ascribing value to one over the other, but my sight is critically different than Ed’s sight. So the way in which we work together, that is the American theater. But by God, we’re taking photos of it and putting it in an exhibit and going, Look at this beautiful wonderful thing, when it should be the thing!
DAH: When it should be the norm.
DAH: Right. Last question. I teach dramatic writing at NYU and I always end interviews by asking theater-makers what advice they have for young theater-makers: so student directors, student playwrights, you know. And not just students formally enrolled in the university, but anyone who’s just starting out and in this field and in this industry. Any tips? What do you wish someone had told you ten years ago?
ESI: I would say don’t do it unless you must because the theater is far too important a space to be met by anything less than a total commitment of your life. To squander even a single person’s gamble that night, on purchasing a ticket, only to be met by incompetence is the only real crime I can imagine an artist can commit.
MU: I second that. I tell some of my students to rigorously pursue their inherent, innate, illogical – the way I write plays, the way I construct plays, makes some people discomforted, some people…There’s a range of emotions when people first meet my play. But I had to. It’s been seven years now. The rigor that’s involved in the playwriting, and then the trying it out and teaching people and then knowing that it works, and then the rigor it’s advocating against a new – I shouldn’t say “new” because then it makes me like, like I was birthed now and there are other people who write like me. The rigor of the education and the teaching into and then the standing behind your work when people might not be able to see through it is a real skillset. And I say “rigor” because there are some students who are like, I did this new thing. It’s great. But they haven’t practiced it and gone through the steps to go, No, does it really work? How do I stand by it? I’m not saying just pursue your illogical passions – it’s like, do so rigorously. And perhaps it’s not illogical, pursue whatever is inherent in you. And I think the keyword is “rigor.” I don’t know that I’d be anywhere without it and I don’t know many artists who are. With the artists that I love, I think about their longevity, the span of their careers. There is rigor attached to it.
DAH: Excellent. So previews begin April 22nd and the play opens May 7th. I will be there. Thank you so much!
MU & ESI: Thank you!
Mfoniso Udofia, a first generation Nigerian-American storyteller and educator, attended Wellesley College and obtained her MFA from ACT. She co-pioneered the youth initiative, The Nia Project, providing artistic outlets for youth residing in Bayview/Huntspoint. Mfoniso’s Ufot Family Cycle plays, Sojourners and Her Portmanteau, will be produced this coming Spring 2017 as part of New York Theatre Workshop’s season. She is also Playwrights Realm’s 2015-16 Page One Playwright and in Winter 2016 they produced the World Premiere of Sojourners. In Spring 2016, The Magic Theater in San Francisco produced the West Coast Premiere of Sojourners and the World Premiere of the third installation in the Ufot Family Cycle, runboyrun. Mfoniso is currently working on Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s Play On! commission translating Shakespeare’s, Othello. She’s also the Artistic Director of the NOW AFRICA: Playwrights Festival and a proud member of New Dramatists class of 2023. Mfoniso’s plays have been developed, presented and/or produced by Playwrights Realm, The Magic Theatre, Dr. Barbara Ann Teer’s National Black Theatre, Hedgebrook, Sundance Theatre Lab, Space on Ryder Farm, NNPN and New Play Showcase, Makehouse, Soul Productions, terraNOVA, I73, The New Black Fest, Rising Circle’s INKTank, At Hand Theatre Company, The Standard Collective, American Slavery Project, Liberation Theatre Company and more. Mfoniso was a finalist for the 2015 PoNY Prize, the Eugene O’Neill NPC, Bay Area Playwrights Festival, Many Voices Fellowship, Page73 Development Programs, Jerome Fellowship, NYTW’s 2050 Fellowship and Lark Playwrights’ Week.
Ed Sylvanus Iskandar has directed over 150 productions globally. NEW YORK: The Mysteries, Restoration Comedy, and These Seven Sicknesses (all NYT Critics’ Picks, The Flea Theater); The Red Umbrella (Drama League); The Golden Dragon (The Play Company at the New Ohio Theatre). REGIONAL: Head Over Heels (Oregon Shakespeare Festival), Don Juan, Translations, and The Collection (Stanford Repertory Theatre); Homemade Fusion (Pittsburgh CLO); Don Carlos, Brand and Miss Julie (CMU); The Dumb Waiter, No Exit, Death and the Maiden and Sexual Perversity in Chicago (Edinburgh Fringe Festival). INTERNATIONAL: Venus in Fur (Singapore); Memphis (Japan) OTHER: As Founding Artistic Director of invite-only NYC collective Exit, Pursued By a Bear (EPBB), Ed has served over 12,000 free home-cooked meals and shared 150 priceless nights of theater over the course of staging 8 Labs and 40 Salons, including NY or world premieres of The Further Adventures of Hedda Gabler, Arok of Java, and the musical Dani Girl, alongside new versions of Don Carlos, The Master Builder, and King Lear. Restoration Comedy and These Seven Sicknesses both began their NYC lives as EPBB Labs, later transferring to critical acclaim as productions at The Flea. EPBB fulfills a vision of theater that deepens the audience’s ability to engage by creating empathy for the human effort behind the art. Ed’s body of work with EPBB was honored with the 2013 National Theatre Conference Emerging Professional Award, conferred by Bill Rauch (Artistic Director of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival).