Review: A painful puzzle is put together in A.C.T. San Francisco’s ‘Her Portmanteau’

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(l to r) Inabiasi (Eunice Woods) and Adiaha (Aneisa Hicks) have severe disagreements in “Her Portmanteau,” through March 31st in San Francisco. (Kevin Berne photo)

In the tiny living room that Abasiama occupies, there lies a puzzle. It’s not one of those 500-piece deals you buy at Target, mind you, but a homemade puzzle at 15, 20 pieces max.

This moment in the phenomenal production of A.C.T. San Francisco’s “Her Portmanteau,” directed with reverence by Victor Malana Maog with beautiful words penned by Mfoniso Udofia, is as painful as it is critical. As Abasiama (a powerful, matriarchal turn by Kimberly Scott) finds pictures after doing some snooping around in her daughter’s beat up, red suitcase, she has given herself a task – watch her grandson, a boy she has never met, grow up. Yet, the years advance in seconds. All she can do is try to put these pictures in order and keep herself together. Her grandson has the family’s gap tooth at 5. How about his school picture when he was 8, such a big boy!

There is a fervent drive and a palpable sadness in this moment where she puts together her puzzle. The stakes have been raised, being a woman who has lost so much when she left her home country of Nigeria, a land she roamed among servants and luxury. Her status was traded for a tiny spot in New York City, where connection to her food at home is replaced by multiple temperatures of water and a big box of Jiffy.

What strikes you deeply about this wonderful play, the fourth in an ambitious nine-play cycle is how striking and varied these three women are. For starters, Iniabasi (an effectively irked Eunice Woods) has plenty of irritation. First, there was the delay at the airport in a cold city her wardrobe was not prepared for. Then, you have the entrance into her new digs, a cramped New York apartment that doesn’t exactly bode well for the promise of a magical, American future. The looks on Iniabasi’s face goes from terse, to terser to tersest. Makes sense though. She is here without her father, who recently passed, and without her son, who sits in Nigeria waiting for his mother’s words that a reunion in the United States has arrived.

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Kimberly Scott as Abasiama. (Kevin Berne photo)

Adiaha (a fantastically sharp Aneisa Hicks) is certainly a patient young woman, but in this case, she ain’t tryin’ to hear her half-sister’s zeal for bitching. Adiaha is quite proud of her apartment and the multitude of pillows that hover over every corner of the couch (a dazzling scenic design by David Israel Reynoso). It is moments like these, where the fallacy of American exceptionalism meets the misguided expectation of the newly arrived immigrant, that shows just how severe the wedges are between these women.

Adiaha’s clapback is sharp, direct and perfect. It’s not put out there with vengeance, but it’s pointed – I work hard over here for what I got, and besides, I like my apartment, and I like that it’s mine. These are the moments that make the play soar. You can clearly feel the hand prints of Maog’s taut direction and the thrill he has when guiding his performers through inspired Udofia dialogue. This play is about relationships, or lack thereof, in a way that mothers and daughters and sisters feel like strangers.

The three women cast in each role brings a truth and depth to every moment. While it may seem that Woods is playing one note in many of the early scenes, she allows each listening moment to build beautifully in order to show her hurt, pain and confusion when each new reality is revealed. Hicks is wonderfully sharp, a youthful scene-stealer just hovering on the edges, a stranger in her own house. When she decides to take control of her space, it is full of verve and vivacity.

The biggest discoveries are left for Scott, who thunders hard in separate moments, where the realizations of loss hit with a vicious slam. The juxtaposition of those discoveries and the two characters who are referred to but not seen drive much of the action. The damp coldness of a touch between mother and daughter drips with honesty. In the hands of Scott, who shares a cutting, visceral pain, she meets these challenges head on.

The wonderful fabrics that are threaded beautifully leads to the play’s somewhat problematic and rushed denouement. We’ve spent 95 minutes viewing the pain and distance between these three strong-willed and multi-layered women of color. Why is there a need to bring forth a firm and warm resolution? This play and its issues are challenging, messy even. The attempt at resolving these things in a tidy package work against everything the play beautifully built prior.

Everything in this play has two meanings which reflects the duality of the lives of immigrants and people of color. Each of the women, even Adiaha who does not have any hint of an accent, is living two lives, two realities, navigating two countries and two identities at every moment. The strength of the play is the truth it brings forth. There are a million questions, but not a single easy answer.

Only time will allow each of these women to unpack their portmanteaus, with so much more surely to be revealed. It just may be the saddest, but also the most wonderful puzzle anyone can ever put together.

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

American Conservatory Theater presents “Her Portmanteau”
Written by Mfoniso Udofia
Directed by Victor Malana Maog
The Word: Despite the problematic denouement, a thrilling journey through three women who are strangers in their land and in each other’s presence.
Stars: 4.5 out of 5
Through March 31st
The A.C.T. Strand Theatre
1127 Market Street, San Francisco, CA
Running time: 100 minutes, no intermission
Tickets range from $25 – $90
For tickets, call (415) 749-2228 or visit https://www.act-sf.org/

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