Ethnicity v. Culture: ‘Soft Power’ and ‘Portmanteau’

Africa like Asia is a continent and just what does it mean to be African or Asian? While the United States of America has regions, Africa and Asia are divided up into countries and our personal prejudices shape our perceptions, something that plays like “Soft Power” and “Her Portmanteu” can break down.

“Soft Power” focuses on men; “Portmanteau” on women. “Soft Power” takes on a bigger range of topics, almost too many and moves across the US as well as overseas to China. “Portmanteau” is more contained. Both plays are personal, but in different ways.

Los Angeles-born David Henry Hwang survived a horrific knife attack in 2015 and his “Soft Power” is about just that with his alter ego named David Henry Hwang or DHH (Francis Jue). Instead of coming off as thoughtful, his character seems whiny and not in a good way. The play itself is billed as “A Play with a Musical.” The musical part (by Jeanine Tesori) takes place within the contorted dream sequence that DHH enters while unconscious after the attack and during the surgery. It mixes us fact with fiction. How weird does it get? Hillary Rodham Clinton makes an appearance and does some enthusiastic twerking and that’s connected to a famous fast food chain. Just like the dreams I usually, have, “Soft Power” seems disjointed and not particularly memorable.

What I want in a musical is song that makes me want to dance and at least one tune that will make me hum as I leave the theater. “Soft Power” doesn’t have that kind of musical enchantment powering it. The music is serviceable and it is nice to see an Asian man in a lead role–something more commonly seen on stage than in the movie theaters. But all that nice is not enough to make this a good or great musical. The best moment of the play is a sequence where DHH is observing Chinese news media totally oblivious to their cultural appropriation.

Yet what is clearest is that even as a second-generation American-born Chinese, DHH is mostly influenced by the North American culture that at once embraces him (as “Bruce Lee,” another American-born Chinese) and rejects him. Still, he doesn’t quite fit in with the modern China that has mostly left communism behind to embrace its own style of capitalism (“You must learn to think less like an American”).

Mfoniso Udofia is a first-generation Nigerian-American. “Her Portmanteau” doesn’t take us to as many locales and there are no splashy sets and scene changes. We only have two places. Scene One,  which is represented by a coin-operated public telephone that is rolled in with the rest of the set darkened, takes place at JFK International Airport. A severe slender women with a pageboy haircut, a trench coat and jeans lugs a heavy, old burgundy-color leather suitcase. That’s right–so old-style it doesn’t have wheels. She’s not happy and she, Iniabasi (Délé Ogundiran) speaks the Nigerian dialect of Ibibio. Meeting her and running late, is her half-sister, Adiaha (Omozé Idehenre). Adiaha makes all the right motions, trying in good humor to start up a conversation, spark any sign of affection. Both women are 30-something, but they have something else in common: They are both the eldest daughters of one woman, Abasiama (Joyce Guy), by two different men.

Scene Two is at an apartment in Inwood, New York City. Iniabasi has come ill-prepared for one of the coldest days of the year in January 2014. Getting inside of Adiaha’s cozy apartment doesn’t thaw her chilling anger. What’s she’s angry about is the death of a dream, her mother’s perceived desertion and the usurping of what she believes is her rightful place in the family. Originally, she was not meant to be in New York and she tells her mother, “You promised me a house in Massachusetts.” She also finds the other two have American ways that she finds repulsive: “Being polite is America’s way of lying.”

Although we never see them, the shadow of men darkens the world of these women–Abasiama’s now deceased first husband and Iniabasi’s father, Adiaha’s father and Abasiama’s current husband and Iniabasi’s son who was born out of wedlock. While these are women attempting to find independent ways, men still rule their lives, even when they are away from them.

If you’re not used to listening for foreign languages, then “Her Portmanteau” might make you impatient. Unlike operas in foreign language, this production doesn’t have subtitles. The large suitcase once belonged to the mother of both girls and is the physical portmanteau. But, of course, there’s also emotional “portmanteau” or baggage that each woman carries as well as the distinct blending of cultures–not unlike the portmanteau usage that means a blending of two words to form another.

In Iniabasi, Udofia gives us a woman who is disappointed in the space she is trading in–from life on a compound when her father was alive to a one-bedroom apartment with a sister she barely knows. One imagines that even if Iniabasi had been able to join her mother Abasiama in her house, she wouldn’t be happy. And Abasiama makes it clear that her current husband won’t be happy to have Inibasi either. This is a family that won’t be well blended.

Director Gregg T. Daniel doesn’t quite provide the bridge an audience needs when one doesn’t understand the language nor do the actors inhabit the characters in a manner that would suggest both long-time intimacy between Abasiama and Adiaha and desperate longing between Iniabasi and Abasiama.

Udofia’s consideration is the distinct blending of Nigerian culture with US culture that each woman represents. At once, this opens an opportunity to consider both the distinctness of Nigerians and the indistinctness or vagueness of African American culture–the lost precision due to the forced immigration and legacy of slavery.

While neither production is perfect, in today’s climate they are important because they show two sides of being a minority in the US. In “Soft Power,” DHH moves from visible minority in the US to invisible minority in China. In “Her Portmanteau,” we have women who moved from being a majority to being a minority. Language is important in both and both plays work to break stereotypes. In “Soft Power,” one can see how thoroughly American DHH is; with “Her Portmanteau” we can see Africa as a continent and, in this case, a place of specific cultures like in Nigeria.

“Her Portmanteau” continues until 30 June at Boston Court. “Soft Power” has moved on to The Curran Theater in San Francisco until 8 July 2018.




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