A Different Kind of Understanding

By Annie Sears

Wearing a light windbreaker and carrying a worn portmanteau, 36-year-old Iniabasi Ekpeyong shivers outside JFK International Airport. She finds a pay phone, dials an international number using a calling card, waits for someone to pick up, and says, “Uwem, mme yem itang iko mme Kufre.”

Actors Aneisa Hicks (playing Adiaha) and Eunice Woods (playing Iniabasi) at the first rehearsal for Her Portmanteau. Photo by Elspeth Sweatman.

Her Portmanteau, playing through March 31 at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater, employs a storytelling technique that may be unfamiliar to some audience members: the use of multiple languages onstage—without subtitles. The characters in Her Portmanteau are Nigerian, and they alternate between English and Ibibio. Audiences may not be able to understand all of the characters’ words verbatim, but that’s part of the play’s charm. It’s possible to understand the heart of the play if one leans into other modes of understanding. Communication is not only what we say, but the way we say it; the volume, tone, and speed of our delivery are just as important as the words themselves. Embracing this different kind of understanding is a very exciting and intentional choice on playwright Mfoniso Udofia’s part.

Nigeria is made up of more than 250 ethnic groups that speak more than 520 different languages; most everybody in Nigeria is multilingual. “When you can speak many languages,” says Udofia, “it’s quite simple to pick the best one for a moment and then switch to the truth of the other when needed. That’s why I’m not interested in making a Nigerian play entirely in English. That is not how it is.” Some languages lend themselves to communicating certain thoughts better than others. Ibibio doesn’t have as many words as English. For example, there’s no Ibibio word for “pink.” Instead, you’d have to say “less red.” “The translation isn’t clean,” says Udofia. “For authenticity’s sake, sometimes I have the characters revert back to their language of thought.”

Udofia is also interested in the inherent power dynamic of language. “If you and I spoke English and Ibibio, and there’s a person that we don’t like who only speaks English,” says Udofia, “we might switch to Ibibio because that’s the language they can’t hear.” Iniabasi exemplifies this in Her Portmanteau. Believing her American-born sister Adiaha lacks an understanding of Nigerian culture, Iniabasi converses with her mother in Ibibio so that her sister can hear, but not hear. It’s a calculating move, designed to make Adiaha feel like the outsider.

In the same way, audience members who don’t speak Ibibio might feel like outsiders—which is part of the point, a stirring theatrical effect unique to this production. What is it like to be thrust into a society where nobody speaks the same language as you, where you’re surrounded by sound you can’t decipher? It can be both isolating and exhilarating, and perhaps the audience can grasp some small semblance of that through watching Her Portmanteau. Perhaps this theatrical experience can spark empathy in English-speaking, monolingual audiences, offering a glimpse into an immigrant experience.

“Everybody in this play has a belief system that is not wrong, but is not quite right either. Including the audience,” says Udofia. “Just like the characters onstage, the audience is going to have to learn and figure out who they are. I don’t want to make it easier for the audience. In a certain way, they are going on the same journey as the characters.”

Experience this unique storytelling technique for yourself, and get your tickets for Her Portmanteau, running through March 31 at A.C.T.’s Strand Theater.

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