By Jason Crawford Samios-Uy
Running Time: Approx. 2 hours with one intermission
The American Dream. I often wonder what people from other, less fortunate countries see and hear about America. Are they really told and believe the streets are paved in gold? Are they told you can be anything you want to be? Do they understand we have the right to pursue happiness but not outright happiness itself? The Strand Theatre‘s latest offering, Sojourners by Mfoniso Udofia and Directed by Cheryl J. Williams, touches on one young Nigerian family’s pursuit of happiness but also includes the obstacles and downfalls that come along with that pursuit.
I sheepishly admit that I can’t tell you exactly what this piece is trying to accomplish. From what I gather, and with a little bit of research, Sojourners is the origin story in Udofia’s Ufot Family Cycle of plays. This story concerns itself with Abasiama (Ama) and Ukpong Ekpeyong, a young Nigerian couple expecting their first child and the father has gotten a little too comfortable in America, forgetting his purpose for being here, which is to acquire an education and degree then head back to the homeland. Conversely, Ama has her eye on the prize and is working hard to accomplish it while being very pregnant and working all at the same time. While Ukpong is selfishly having the time of his life, Ama is trying to obtain her goals and meets Moxie, a down-her-luck, streetwise young woman and Disciple Ufot, an astute student from the same area of her hometown. Ama’s new friends care deeply for her and she eventually opens up to both of them, while realizing it’s up to her to be the change she wants to see.
Set Design is always tricky in this space, but The Strand Theatre and their production teams always seem to pull it off nicely. This is no different in this production as Set Design by Gabriella Castillo manages to turn the space into many different locations with the use of a couple of simple set pieces and levels. The simple design is practical but presents the locations of each scene nicely and easily.
Director Cheryl J. Williams has a deep comprehension of this material and her staging in the intimate, unique space is superb. She has a good grasp on these characters and their conflicts and her casting is spot on. Aside from a couple of clunky scene changes, the action moves smoothly and the presentation is polished. As for time period, the setting is a bit unknown and there’s not a lot of help from costumes by Costume Designer Sharlene Clinton. The wardrobe is a mix of traditional designs with fashions that one would see on the street today. I believe it may be the late 60s or 70s, but don’t quote me on that. Don’t get me wrong, the Costume Design is good but doesn’t make one take much notice, which some could argue is just what a Costume Design is supposed to do.
Ama Brown takes on the role of the strong Abasima (Ama) Ekpeyong and she very much carries this entire piece. She is a standout with her exquisite, natural delivery and dialect work. She completely embodies this character and emotes all the feels within this woman and the one to watch in this piece. She seems to have a deep understanding of Ama (the character) and gives a strong, confident performance. In tandem with Brown’s Abasiama, her real life husband, Kenyon Parson takes on the role of Abasiama’s husband, Ukpong Ekpyeong and he, too, is a highlight in this production. Parson portrays a character we are supposed to hate, but his portrayal is so authentic and natural, he comes off as the friend you call to have a good time. In context, this character is having a good time when he’s not supposed to and seems quite selfish, but the dialogue and Parson’s presentation makes him a charming, if not loveable character who we seem to be able to forgive easily, against our better judgement.
Rounding out this small ensemble is Jenelle Brown who takes on the role of the savvy Moxie and Grant Emerson Harvey, who excellently portrays Disciple Ufot. Jenelle Brown does well with her character, but seems a little scripted at times and it throws off the flow, just a tad. She seems to get her character but her performance seems forced. Harvey, on the other hand gives a spot on performance and is believable and precise in character. He, too, completely embodies his character and has a tight comprehension of what his character is all about. His portrayal of a young man who is deeply grounded in his traditions but is able to look forward to the future is magnificent and he is confident in his movement and delivery. Overall, he gives an assured and praiseworthy performance.
Final thought… Sojourners at The Strand Theatre is a thoughtful and interesting tale of the human experience and keeps the audience entertained, even if it’s hard to pin-point exactly what the piece is about. The strong performances and relatable characters are what make this production extremely successful. There aren’t a lot of bells and whistles with the set and other technical aspects, but the minimal approach works nicely with this piece. I may not get it completely but I can’t deny it’s damn entertaining. It’s definitely worth checking out and is a great addition to The Strand Theatre’s season.
This is what I thought of The Strand Theatre’s production of Sojourners… What did you think? Please feel free to leave a comment!
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