Playwright Mfoniso Udofia ’06 Reflects on Failing Forward

June 30, 2017
Performers in Mfoniso Udofia's “Sojourners”
Credit:
Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Fail forward. It sounds counterintuitive, but Mfoniso Udofia ’06 took this logic to heart and is in the process of writing nine plays for production in New York City. With grit and determination, she’s launched a career on an upward trajectory—her work was highlighted in an article in the New York Times on May 31.

Udofia’s parents immigrated from Nigeria to Houston, Texas, in the 1970s. Her mother is a microbiologist, and her father is a scholar of West African studies.

“I have incredible parents,” she says. “They definitely looked at myself and my siblings and were like, ‘You are someone. You have the potential to change the world.’”

Udofia studied political science at Wellesley with her sights set on becoming a lawyer, but her ambitions changed. She had attended Broadway shows and played trombone in high school. At Wellesley, she took opera lessons and performed in plays put on by Ethos, the black student union, and found that she loved the stage more than the law.

She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in political science and enrolled in the American Conservatory Theater in San Francisco, where she graduated with an M.F.A. in acting.

From San Francisco, she moved to New York City, hired an agent, and auditioned for theater roles. But she found that she couldn’t land a part.

“There were some African plays and I was going up for parts, and I was never African enough, so I started writing,” she says. “They had an image in their head of someone skinnier.”

Disheartened but not defeated, Udofia failed forward. If she could not act, she would write. But life as a writer was not without disappointment. Some of her initial work received unfavorable reviews, which tested her self-confidence.

“I was writing in a little apartment in Washington Heights in New York City,” she says. “I’m a Wellesley woman … I believe myself to be incredibly smart, and so why aren’t my plays takings off instantly? I was pondering the existence, my life’s existence, in my little apartment and I considered myself a failure. I had a moment where I had a bad review and I was like, ‘Oh, my Lord, is my career over?’”

It wasn’t over. Udofia picked herself up. She had learned resiliency from her parents, and her years at Wellesley had reinforced her drive to overcome obstacles. “I think the greatest lesson that I have taken from Wellesley was that of hard work and failing forward, not allowing things to stop me,” she says.

In quiet moments of introspection, Udofia moved forward with writing and overcame her self-doubt. “I’ve had many a moment where if I had stopped and believed my own insecurity or believed the thoughts other people had of me, I would have stayed in one position far too long, instead of picking up pieces and starting to go forward into the dream I knew that I had,” she says.

Udofia's projected nine-play series, called the “Ufot Family Cycle,” is about the history of Nigerian immigration to the United States. She has written five so far: Sojourners, The Grove, Run Boy Run, Her Portmanteau, and In Old Age. The plays were financed by several sources, including the Playwrights Realm in New York, and have been well received.

Udofia writes to entertain but also to educate—she wants to dispel stereotypes, she says. “When I tell people I am Nigerian, they ask: ‘Oh, my God. What is it like over there? Is it all dust, mud, and woefulness?’ It’s not.”

When asked about her future, Udofia responded: “Part of my mission is to tell nuanced African stories. I want to disrupt the thoughts people have about Africans...that’s part of my goal and I want to do that in all media forms. That’s theater which I’m doing now. That will eventually mean TV one day. Anywhere that I can tell a nuanced African story is where I want to be, particularly Nigerian, because that is the nationality from which I write.”