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Off-Broadway Review: “runboyrun” and “In Old Age” at New York Theatre Workshop (Through Sunday October 13, 2019

Off-Broadway Review: “runboyrun” and “In Old Age” at New York Theatre Workshop (Through Sunday October 13, 2019
Written by Mfoniso Udofia
Directed by Loretta Greco and Awoye Timpo
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited

As a result of playwright Mfoniso Udofia’s profound interest in the African Diaspora, perhaps no fictional couple in the recent history of Off-Broadway theatre have had their histories more parsed than Nsikan Disciple Ufot and his wife Abasiama Ekpeyong Ufot. “runboyrun” and “In Old Age,” currently running at New York Theatre Workshop, are the third and eighth plays in Mfoniso Udofia’s nine-play cycle chronicling four generations of the Nigerian-American Ufot family. “runboyrun” deals with both the three-year Biafran Civil War and the civil war being waged in the Worcester, Massachusetts Ufot household. “In Old Age” deals with the transformative issues of purge and passing that Abasiama confronts in her “solitude” years later in the same Worcester home.

Past and present share the stage in “runboyrun” which takes place on October 20 in two different times and places: in 1968 in Biafra and in 2012 in Worcester. The actions of the past coexist and collide as they parallel and counterpoint the actions in the present: during the Nigerian Civil War, the Biafrans attempt to secede from Nigeria; amidst the civil strife within the Ufot household, Abasiama (a reflective and powerful Patrice Johnson Chevannes) attempts to navigate a cessation of the repetitive cycles of Disciple’s (a fractured yet hopeful Chiké Johnson) paranoia, fear, and abusive behavior as well as his debilitating dissociative disorder.

Much of Disciple’s current behavior relates to the trauma he experienced fleeing with his family from the Igbo genocide in Biafra and the weight of responsibility he assumed for the death of his Sister (a caring and supportive Adrianna K. Mitchell). This trauma has left Disciple a broken man controlled by constant thudding and knocking from the wounds of his past wounds reopened by the magical realism of his torment visible to the audience and colliding with him in mysterious ways. His “splitting” leads Abasiama to wanting a divorce and this decision results in an increase in her power and a diminution of her husband’s subjugation to his past. Dialogue begins and the possibility of reconciliation occurs when Disciple is finally able to share his story with Abasiama.

“In Old Age” highlights an older, reclusive, shell of an Abasiama now living alone in what appears to be the relic of the home she shared with Disciple and haunted by constant knocking beneath the floorboards which is none other that Disciple’s “appearing” with questions, taunts, complaints, admonitions, and cruelties “from beyond.” Abasiama’s isolation has exposed her to the prey of “demons” from the past. She had no community, her children do not visit, and she is exposed to the same dissociation that plagued her husband. Into this wasteland comes curmudgeonly handyman Azell Abernathy (a persistent and perplexed Ron Canada) who has been sent by Abasiama’s daughter to renovate the home.

In an extended cat-and mouse game, the two lonely individuals begin a dialogue that demands they be honest with one another, expose their “ghosts” to one another, and ultimately become open to a future that includes the other. There is a spellbinding scene during which Abasiama drags Disciples belongings from the lower floor and “washes” him from her life and erasing her fears of the past, her ghosts, and her regrets. Patrice Johnson Chevannes and Ron Canada deliver emotionally charged performances that require vulnerability and risk and deeply felt humanity.

Both plays raise similar – and interconnected – enduring questions. These questions make deep connections to the self, to others, and to the world. What are the “ghosts” of our individual and collective pasts? How do these specters impinge themselves upon the present? How does the individual – indeed the nation – recover from physical, emotional, and psychological trauma and transition into holistic health? How are new homes established in safe zones? How do the echoes of “because of me” and the stultification of guilt transform into the catharsis of forgiveness and redemption? How does “fleeing” transition into “purge and passing?” Finally, when is it appropriate and safe to surrender to the possibilities of a new future by uttering the powerful mantra, “OK. It’s. OK.” Mfoniso Udofia successfully addresses these themes in “runboyrun” and “In Old Age” with the power and strength of believability and authenticity.

The casts under directors Loretta Greco and Awoye Timpo deliver remarkable and unforgettable performances. Time and space inhabit Andrew Boyce’ surreal set illuminated with pools of forgiving and redemptive lighting designed by Oona Curley and given eerie yet seductive voice by David Van Tieghem’s sound design.

Abasiama’s, Disciple’s, and Azell Abernathy’s stories of transitioning from “fighting” to survival” are humankind’s stories. Their struggles to achieve vulnerability and transparency and healing are humanity’s struggles to achieve the same paths to selfhood. Their escape from cognitive dissonance is our journey as well. And their stories lead to levels of reconciliation and release unparalleled prior to hearing them and listening to them. Missing Mfoniso Udofia’s plays is missing enormous opportunities for grappling with what it means to be human.


The cast for “runboyrun” features Karl Green as Boy, Chiké Johnson as Disciple Ufot, Patrice Johnson Chevannes as Abasiama Ufot, Adrianna K. Mitchell as Sister, Adesola Osakalumi as Ben Gun, and Zenzi Williams as Mother. The cast for “In Old Age” includes Ron Canada as Azell Abernathy and Patrice Johnson as Abasiama.

“runboyrun” and “In Old Age” features scenic design by Andrew Boyce, costume design by Karen Perry, lighting design by Oona Curley, sound design by David Van Tieghem, and hair and wig design by J. Jared Janas. Jerome Butler serves as dialect coach, Katherine Kovner serves as dramaturg, with Caroline Englander serving as Stage Manager.

Photo: Chiké Johnson and Patrice Johnson Chevannes in Mfoniso Udofia’s “runboyrun” at New York Theatre Workshop. Credit: Joan Marcus.
Permalink | Posted by David Roberts on Saturday, September 28, 2019