“Nobody wages war with ghosts.”
– African proverb
What is it about old houses that just creates a sense of unease? I recently watched a five-minute documentary on the history of the Victorian mansion (aka “the Gothic mansion”) detailing how that garish architectural design became visual shorthand for “haunted”. Although the Victorian may be the most (in)famous ghost-prone homestead, it’s by no means the only one. Oftentimes, it’s the mere fact that a place is old can be enough to make your hair stand on end.
An old build in a place with history, and an old home is a place that has likely had several families passing through it. The thought of those past occupants leaving something behind – something so intangible that it can’t be grasped, but so deeply imbued that can’t easily be removed – is equally comforting and terrifying: comforting because it suggests that a piece of you can live on eternally; terrifying because that immortality may be the result of being spiritually trapped in the walls you’ve physically escaped.
Mroniso Udofia’s latest is about spirits in a variety of forms: the supernatural; the alcoholic; and the emotional. Given that it’s a sequel to her recent ACT premiere Her Portmanteau, one wouldn’t expect the supernatural angle, and it remains to be seen how this stands amongst the rest of her play cycle. But were it to stand on its own, it’s okay.
Azell Abernathy came to do a job, and he intends to do it. Played by the Bay Area’s own unmistakable Steven Anthony Jones, Abernathy’s somewhat boorish American insistence is worlds apart from the conservative African demeanor of Nancy Moricette’s Abasiama Ufot, the character connecting this play to Her Portmanteau. He first shows up banging on her door like an angry mad owed money, but he doesn’t know other way to act. He lashes out at her insistence that he start work at 6am each morning and take off his shoes when entering the house. Abasiama regards him the way a dog would regard as suspicious new visitor, complete with her seemingly staking out one corner of the house to watch him re-panel her floor.
The two finally connect over mutual faith (Abasiama is fond of watching a gospel tv show, even when it distracts Azell), a disconnect with both their families, and the aforementioned spirits. Azell has long-since put to bed the alcoholic spirits that ruined his life, and he counts his days sober as Abasiama tries his patience more and more. Abasiama’s ghost, however, is literal. The spirit of her late husband speaks to her in a volume neither we nor Azell can hear, but we sense his presence as he bangs on walls and makes doors open and close on their own.
The haunting sequences are genuinely unsettling, thanks in no short part to York Kennedy’s lights and Sara Huddleston’s audio (the latter of which is sometimes near-ear-splitting in order to emphasize Abasiama’s growing frustration). Similarly, director Victora Maog lucked out with the cast of the always-reliable Jones and the talented Moricette (who looks noticeably younger than her character’s intended age).
The problem is that Udofia’s script isn’t quite sure where to go at times. She has these two disparate characters who, as per convention, must get together, but their connection isn’t anywhere near as organic as their conflict. When the two are at odds – whether for the audience’s amusement or enlightenment – the scenes and performances ring true. But there’s nothing in what we’re shown that suggests these characters would want to spend anymore time with one another than absolutely necessary.
I can understand the impetus to push for a happy ending, especially since it leads to the final stage in the transformation of Andrew Boyce’s detailed-yet-minimalist stage. What’s more, Abasiama’s decision to finally face and defeat that which haunts her is both narratively satisfying and thrilling to watch (despite the bewildering decision to have Azell watch dumbfounded through the window). Still, there’s a “square peg, round hole” aspect to these characters’ relationship that doesn’t work. Had it just been a straightforward haunting story, with Azell the one credible witness to Abasiama’s haunting, it would have made more sense.
In Old Age is the sort of show one rarely sees: a two-person all-Black cast of characters over the age of 50 whose literal and figurative demons continue to cause them pain. Both those characters and the talented actors who portray them are strong enough to hold our interest, even when the script begins to flail wildly. If nothing else, I’ll say this about Mfoniso Udofia’s play cycle now that I’ve seen two entries: I’m genuinely curious as to where it goes from here.
In Old Age is scheduled to run until the 21st of April at The Magic Theatre in San Francisco’s Fort Mason.
The show runs roughly 1 hr. 45 min. with no intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.