Review of runboyrun & In Old Age at New York Theatre Workshop

  • Our critic's rating:
    September 24, 2019
    Review by:
    Constance Rodgers

    It is January 10, 2012 and we are in Worcester Massachusetts, USA. It is very cold. It is January 10, 1968 and we are in the Republic of Biafra. It is very hot. runboyrun (directed by Loretta Greco) physically takes place in 2012 Massachusetts, but emotionally Disciple Ufot (Chiké Johnson) remains in Nigeria due to the traumas he has witnessed and experienced during the civil war raging between Nigeria and the former Eastern region of Nigeria, Biafra.

    Remember Biafra? I had not thought of it for a long time, until this play. That is one reason the playwright, Mfoniso Udofia, is writing her nine play Ufot Family Cycle, to remind us of this history and to tell stories of the African diaspora to the United States caused by the end of colonialism in Africa. runboyrun and In Old Age are two plays in the cycle and as Disciple Ufot states, the history of what is now called Nigeria, as the history of all post-colonial Africa is, “A history nobody knows”. Disciple is a professor of African Studies at a community college. He has hopes of a university position after he completes his final book on post-colonial Africa, “Remembrance and Forward Growth.” However, there is no forward growth for the patriarch and matriarch of the Ufot family - only remembrance.

    Both Disciple and Abasiama (Patrice Johnson Chevannes) suffer from post-traumatic stress though they each exhibit it differently. Abasiama sleeps all day to the sound of a TV gospel show, not passionate, spirit filled gospel, but mild mannered, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus”, gospel. Disciple writes of Africa and speaks of food. He prays and does ritual in Western and African religious traditions to chase away the ghosts and demons of his past. Disciple's family of birth are physically present throughout the play acting out the nightmares he feels so intensely. Abasiama is more disturbed by the present; the cold, women's roles, controlling men, absent children.

    runboyrun is powerful. The play is rich and explores new ways of storytelling. The acting is stellar. Both the present and the past are smartly directed to hold equal force. The set design (by Andrew Boyce) is original and helps the movement of the piece seamlessly.

    After intermission comes In Old Age. The play opens with Abasiama as she was in the opening of runboyrun, asleep on the couch listening to a gospel TV show. There is a knock on the door, hard for Abasiama to hear over the constant banging coming from the basement that Disciple's ghost torments her with. At the door is Abernathy (Ron Canada), a contractor, hired by Abasiama's absent children to renovate the house. The two clash but are also drawn to each other. Abasiama says, “Some parts of you are a taste I remember.” Abernathy answers, “You a sweet sour taste for me.”, which brings Abasiama back to Nigeria and the sweet-sour food garri. Her telling of the memory mesmerizes Abernathy and their push-pull dance is established.

    In Old Age doesn't work. I think it can and hope it will because I sense its importance, but it needs more, the play and the direction (by Awoye Timpo). The attraction between Abasiama and Abernathy is not palpable and it should be. The sense from the words is that Abasiama sees into Abernathy's soul, the good and the bad, and that Abernathy senses the power of this woman and lets himself give into her. But I do not believe it. There was no tension and no melting into. Meanwhile Abasiama makes claims that she was physically abused by Disciple that are not supported by runboyrun. It is this piece of her past that is supposed to be allowing her to see into Abernathy and to forgive and accept him in place of Disciple. But it does not make sense and destroys the sense of reality.

    I recommend runboyrun. I do not recommend In Old Age. That they are presented together at New York Theatre Workshop makes it very hard to rate. 4 stars for runboyrun and 2 for In Old Age, so as an entire evening 3 stars.

    (Photo by Joan Marcus)

    "Together, the new plays deepen our understanding of the invisible burdens that can weigh down the lives of even the most successful immigrants. That the burdens are not as fresh or surprising as in the earlier works may be the inevitable result of time’s passing within the world Ms. Udofia created."
    Jesse Green for New York Times

    "Although there are logistical benefits to presenting both pieces at once, staging them separately might have given their themes and stories more room to breathe. But Chevannes, Johnson and Canada bring robust soulfulness to their roles, and as their characters exorcise their demons, Udofia’s plays emerge as hearty reminders of the strength of human spirits."
    Diane Snyder for Time Out New York

    "Udofia’s new plays, runboyrun and In Old Age, are set decades apart — they are intended to be the third and eighth play in the saga — but situated, mostly, in the same single-family home in Worcester, Massachusetts, where Abasiama Ufot has settled with her professor husband Disciple... Both new works seem contingent on the other plays in the cycle in ways that may frustrate some audiences."
    Thom Geier for The Wrap