What is your name and where are you from?
My name is Mfoniso Udofia. I live in Newark, New Jersey. I’m from Southbridge, Massachusetts. And my parents are Nigerian, both of them.
Did they immigrate from Nigeria?
Yes, they did. I believe it was in the 70s and we first set up our first family home in Houston, Texas, then we moved to Southbridge, Massachusetts.
How long had they lived in America before you were born?
I was in Houston for five years and I think my mom… you know what I don’t know how to answer that, and I want to be really specific, so I’m not going to answer because I’m going to be off by a year or two.
What’s the project you’ve been working on at SPACE?
I am—thankfully Emily said it’s okay—I’m actually working on a set of three plays here. I have a cycle, called the Ufot Family Cycle. And it follows a family that immigrated here, and what happens with them and their offspring. So it’s huge. It’s kind of epic. So the first one I’ll be working on is The Grove. In that one they’ve been living very similarly in New England for a while and what is happening with their children in terms of identity. Because there’s this saying that, well… I wont say it like that. American children grow up fast, nowadays really really fast. And it’s not like Nigerians don’t, its just that the communal structure is still really there and so you know when as an American you go, “I am this person, I am myself, I am,” that might not hit until a little later with Nigerians and even then it might be, my people are Ibibo so instead of just saying Nigerian, Ibibo. It might not hit until a little later, and this is a country that makes you self identify fast, so what happens if one culture doesn’t value that sort of self-identification in that way. And this country does, what happens with the children?
So do Nigerian children maybe stay closer to home longer?
Not in America, not necessarily, but in Nigeria, yeah. They might even go to boarding school, they might do whatever they do, but the nucleus of the family is very important. And the extension and knowledge of the family, going this is where my grandmother is, this is where my dad is, this is where my brother is and they all may be very close living in the same town its something that maybe in America happened earlier and now we don’t have the same thing so the way the two cultures rub up against each other can be very interesting. And what happens when you have two cultures that don’t necessarily align within one body, and that’s what The Grove is.
Can you elaborate on what you think the differences are in the self-identifying?
So I see 5 year olds here that look at me and go “I am gonna be a fire fighter, and that candy is mine and you stink because you wear the color blue and the color blue sucks” and they have a whole list of knowledge. And even the way the parents are, “do you want gummy bears or do you want licorice? Pick which one you want, and then tell me why you want it and then you get it.” And the little boy will be like, “ I want the licorice because it’s red, it’s long and it’s not as sweet, and I’m not feeling sweet today.” That child is self-identifying wants and needs very very fast and it can make American children appear more grown up. (Laughing) I don’t know if I want you to put all that in the interview. But it can make American children appear more grown up, where a Nigerian child will never get that choice. This is what it is, this is who you are, you are the eldest, you take care of this, this, this, and this, and there are not really any questions, you walk into the world knowing, because people have already told you. So that self-identifying part might not happen until later, where I know in my body all of a sudden I woke up and I was like, “I don’t know if I want to practice law,“ but for the longest time since I was told from this high that’s what I did, I did, I didn’t have the thought to question it. And you know there are pros and cons to both. American children to me can seem so radically adult, and do adult things that literally their brains are not ready to handle the ramifications of what they’re doing, whereas Nigerian children can take a longer time to become adults if they’re living in America, and this is such a fast-paced place, it works better in Nigeria to have that mentality. So what do you do when you’re here and have two of those things inside of you?
(About being raised in this culture with parents from Nigeria.)
I think for me it’s a beautiful thing, because to have two worlds inside of you, while it’s conflicting and sometimes you want to rail against it, it gives you two different perspectives, two different lenses in which to look at the world and measure. And that’s completely invaluable because in one setting I can look at the world from this vantage point and understand what’s happening and in another setting I can easily morph. I’m the morphing queen because of it.
I find that I connect a lot to people who are first or second generation with a real cultural tie because usually they do have two vantage points or the ability to move in and out of spaces and then a knowledge of another and I think in this world it’s important to have that. And one of the things I find problematic with America, again, is that it’s so singular and it’s so narrow and this is the way and it’s very me, myself and I. It’s nice to know what real community is from a very young age.
That family aspect sounds very strong if you know where everyone is and where you fit in.
How have you been spending your time at SPACE?
Oh god. So like I said I’m working on three plays. So my time at SPACE has been working on the third play, because the third play is going to have a reading with terraNOVA fairly soon. And so I’ve been getting that ready so that the reading sometime on June 23rd or something goes well and that’s a verse play. So I’ve been sitting looking at poetry and fighting over which word I use. Like I’m battling over words now. Am I going to say forced or am I going to say vomited? Which one is the word I want?
Then I have been doing things that every playwright dislikes doing, which is the email, and doing the business stuff that I have sorely left behind spending an hour on emails until I make a dent in it. And I’ve been reading a lot of plays, like a lot of plays. Since I’ve been here I think I’ve read upwards of eight plays. All new playwrights. There are some new works I’m really interested in by authors, especially females who I don’t know and I’ve been meeting so many and I ask them to send me their plays and people are actually sending me plays so I’m sitting down and reading them.
What type of verse are you writing in?
When I was younger I did a lot of spoken word. So I’ve done something weird, where the third play it’s called Run Boy Run. I usually don’t want to write Africans on the continent because I feel like Americans don’t deal enough with Africans within their own borders and when you do see an African play it’s always peculiarly over there instead of over here. So I was very married to if I’m going to write Africa I’m going to write the Africa I know. So Run Boy Run is the story of war which is another thing I hate when we talk about Africa because it always gets really exotic and fetishized and I don’t like that, but this was very important to put the Biafran war, because it really affects a lot of the people in America that you see here. My age, my parents’ age there’s still stories of the war told hush-hush and you don’t talk about it. It feels to me like the forgotten war. And so, how do I talk about a huge civil war that happened on the continent but it’s being experienced by people here? So all the memories of the war in this play are in verse so that I elevate the language so that we’re not so stuck on war and watching war torn bodies and you start seeing the war as backdrop, huge big entity elevated up, and then the prose is the stuff of the people on the land here in America, the stuff you’re really connecting into. And so when I separated it out like that it really was a structure that helped tell the story without the war being the all consuming thing that people latch onto like “oh god yes, Nigerians in war.” No you’re gonna deal with the prose happening on the land and all the war is happening in verse. So that verse has elements of spoken word in it, but it’s not rhyming couplets. I don’t know how to explain it, if I could remember a line that would be the easiest way to tell you.
And that’s what I’m going for, if you feel more than you… I’m going for the language of a feeling, so that when it gets terrifying it bubbles up but you’re only hearing people talk in prose, there’s no real wartime action because I’m not interested in you watching bodies being terrorized, as much as you feeling the terror that’s been trickling down and what’s been passed down to the people who are here. So that’s why I chose to do it like that. I don’t know if that’s blank verse or free verse, spoken word verse, it’s my kind of verse.
What’s coming up next for you?
I just got a commission from the National Black Theatre and I’m working on the fourth installation of this cycle. And that’s fun, it’s three women and it’s fun to have three African women in one space. So that’s going on. Ill be going to the International Writers Group and there I’ll hopefully be working on drafts of the fifth play. I’m working kind of fast, I don’t know why. I think I can slow down but I feel like I’m working pretty fast. And then Sojourners is going next week to the magic theatre for their virgin play series.
What is Sojourners?
It’s the second play in the cycle. What did I say? Let me streamline that. What’s happening first is that the second play, Sojourners, is going to the Magic as part of their virgin play series, the Magic Theatre. Run Boy Run, the second play in the series, is going to have a reading with terraNOVA at the end of this month at the Cherry Lane Theatre. I have a commission from the National Black Theatre, NBT for the fourth cycle in this play which is now untitled and when I go to the Omi International Writers Group in the fall I will be working on the fifth.
How many plays are in your series?
Right now I have four drafts of four plays, the fifth I’ll be doing at Omi is a thought, a really developed thought, and then I think I have three or four more to go before I’m done with this cycle and I’ll start doing other things. So it’s probably gonna be an eight- or nine-play cycle.
Is it scoping a family through time?
Yup. So we start in 1968 and we get bigger and bigger and bigger and bigger, and what I am interested in, is they come to this country, they’re so Nigerian, each more modern play they lose a little bit of their Nigerian-ness as they just forget forget forget, as they just blend into the fabric called America. And I don’t know whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, I think I lean towards it being a not good thing but that’s my judgment about what happens to immigrants when they come to America. So that’s what the wide scope of this cycle is attempting to tackle. And when you first meet the plays they were backwards so the very first play in the cycle will always be the most contemporary play. Its what’s happening now and then you’ll see the next one and its back five years, back five years, back five years, and they’ll become more and more Nigerian. So when you first meet them you might think “Ohh I’m just seeing a family of color.” Until you get all the way back to 1968, that is the furthest back in time I’ll go, and you see that this is a very Nigerian family, through and through.
The verse is only going to be in the third play?
The verse really anchors the third play, and right now The Grove, which is technically the first play because what happens is that the verse is in the memory of the father during war and then in The Grove somehow the daughter, his oldest daughter has little beats of her father in him and so she so every so often will talk in verse. She doesn’t know why, though, whereas in the third play I think they have an idea of what this verse is. But she doesn’t know why, she just does it, so it’s like it’s already starting to dilute. And she’s the only one of the kids who does it, so after her I don’t know if I’ll ever write in verse again unless one child is connected suddenly, but for now…
If you were to be reincarnated as farm animal, what would you be and why?
Oh my goddddd. As a farm animal? God dangit, give me a jungle animal. No I know why, it’s cause we’re on SPACE on Ryder Farm. If it has to be a farm animal… could it be an animal you find on a farm?
I’d be a frickin bobcat. I would be a bobcat. I love cats. I know the people are like “oooo, dogs, go for a dog.” I don’t futz with a dog too much, I like a cat.
Why you and cats?
I don’t know, I think it’s cause they’re persnickety, they’re ornery, and I’m kinda ornery once in a while, you know, they actually want you to touch them but they don’t want you to touch them, and I feel like I’m like that. Stroke me but don’t, it’s the way you do it. (laughs) It’s all in the approach. And there is something about a bobcat which can be scary and beautiful, and if this were the jungle I’d go for one of the big master cats but because we’re on the farm I would do a bobcat. I like them. And there’s something wonderful about being just a little feral, just a little wild, like not a house cat, I’m a bobcat. Just a little feral.
Interviewed by Jasmine Stiefel.