From left, Kimberly Scott, Aneisa Hicks and Eunice Woods appear in American Conservatory Theater’s affecting production of “Her Portmanteau.” (Courtesy Kevin Berne)

Nigerian family’s conflicting emotions fuel ‘Her Portmanteau’

There’s an exquisite scene in the middle of “Her Portmanteau,” playwright Mfoniso Udofia’s affecting three-hander now premiering at American Conservatory Theater.

In that wordless scene, a woman alone on the stage — Kimberly Scott as Abasiama — rifles through her adult daughter’s suitcase (the portmanteau of the title) and discovers a stash of photographs.

Silently, and for a long time, she examines each photo, and the myriad expressions crossing her face are wondrous to behold.

That scene — about the grief, and the salvation, to be found in a lifetime of memories — speaks to Udofia’s theme, which imbues at least three plays in her non-chronological nine-play cycle. (This is play No. 4; the first two were produced by the Magic Theatre a few years ago.)

The scene also speaks to the excellent acting under the tender direction of Victor Malana Maog, who will also direct the premiere of play No. 9, “In Old Age,” opening later this month at the Magic. (Plays 6 through 8 are not yet written.)

All nine follow one Nigerian family across time and place.

In “Her Portmanteau,” thirtysomething Iniabasi (Eunice Woods) arrives in New York from Lagos to visit Abasiama, the mother she hasn’t seen since she was a little girl, when Abasiama and her second daughter, Adiaha (Aneisa Hicks), visited Nigeria.

Iniabasi was born in America when Abasiama, who immigrated in 1978, and her first husband were students in Texas.

But the infant was sent back to Nigeria when the parents split up and she was raised by her father there. Now he has died, and Iniabasi has a son of her own, in Nigeria, whom she hopes to bring here for a better life.

Iniabasi’s expectations for this visit are high, and they are immediately dashed when her mother fails to meet her at the airport and sends her half-sister instead.

Every other expectation is dashed as well, and the tart-tongued Iniabasi makes her disappointment, and her anger, abundantly known. “I forgot being polite is American way of life,” she shrugs when she notices that her insults are upsetting her younger sister.

Resentment, guilt and longing emerge over the course of about 95 minutes, playing out in real time, as the three women work through a lifetime of conflicting emotions.

Enriched by some dialogue in the family’s native Nigerian language, this is the most accessible of Udofia’s three plays staged locally so far, and it’s infinitely touching.

REVIEW
Her Portmanteau
Presented by American Conservatory Theater
Where: Strand, 1127 Market St., S.F.
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes March 31
Tickets: $15 to $110
Contact: (415) 749-2228, act-sf.org

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