What's in a Name? Everything.

By Annie Sears

In Lagos, we name our girls
Darling, Sincere, Precious, because
A name is a stake in the grave
—Omotara James

Names hold power. Our name is the word that will be connected to us for our entire existence, the word that shapes us the most, the word most explicitly tied to our identities. For that reason, the characters in Her Portmanteau—playing through March 31 at The Strand—don’t take the act of naming lightly. “One of the greatest things I ever did in this life was name you,” says Abasiama to her daughter Iniabasi. “You have that skill from me. How to name children. . . I am the most proud of the name I gave because when your father wanted to call you freedom? You were even more than that to me. You were right on time. In God’s Time. And if I named you, In God’s Time? . . . Then I too must understand my time.” Abasiama (whose name means “God’s love”) is careful when she names her daughter because she knows what a tremendous privilege it is.

Actor Eunice Woods, who plays Iniabasi, uses a public payphone to make a call to her
son Kufre in A.C.T.'s 2019 production of Her Portmanteau. Photo by Kevin Berne.

Inabasi also named her son thoughtfully, deriving his name from one of her core values: memory. When she arrives in Manhattan, Iniabasi bears a worn suitcase full of photos, of experiences preserved in memory. One important memory is of her half-sister Adiaha’s childhood trip to Nigeria. This was the first time Iniabasi met the sister with whom she shares a mother, with whom she shares a large component of her identity. The experience of spending an entire month with her sister shaped her perception of self, her sense of belonging, and the value system that determines how she thinks, behaves, and identifies. So when Adiaha cannot recall the details of that weighty experience, Iniabasi spits, “Forgetting is not a marker of youth. Remembrance is related to importance!” Memory is huge to Iniabasi, and that value is reflected in her son’s name: Kufre, which means “Don’t forget.”

Adiaha’s name, which means “First-born daughter,” is a point of contention throughout the play because Iniabasi doesn’t think that Adiaha deserves the title. Iniabasi is Abasiama’s first-born daughter from her first marriage, while Adiaha is Abasiama’s first-born daughter from her second marriage. So both sisters identify as the adiaha, the eldest. In many cultural contexts, the oldest child is expected to carry more responsibility than their younger siblings. But Iniabasi and Adiaha can’t both be the eldest, which results in tension because it’s not just a matter of identifying as the eldest, but of becoming what’s expected of the eldest.

Iniabasi (Eunice Woods) criticizes Adiaha's (Anesia Hicks) cooking. Photo by Kevin Berne.

For each of these women, a name is more than a name. A name is a wish, a role to grow into. A name is a truth, a reflection of something important. A name is an identifier, something that ties us to who we are. As Abasiama says, “A name marks a life.”

Want more background on and analysis of Her Portmanteau? Order a copy of Words on Plays, available in the box office and online. And be sure to join us for this powerful story before it closes on March 31. Get your tickets today!

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