The lights go up to reveal two stick houses on the stage, framed in neon light, with walls of gauze, both moveable platforms that will serve in the many chaotically interrelated stories unfolding before us. We are introduced to a tableau of most of the play’s cast in full African regalia.
This is the world premiere production of Good Grief, written by Nigerian-American playwright Ngozi Anyanwu and directed by Patricia McGregor. Though she has a number of theatre credits and awards behind her, this is the first of Anyanwu’s plays to receive a full professional production. A full house on opening night at the 317-seat Kirk Douglas Theatre gave the play and its author a wildly enthusiastic welcome to the pantheon of contemporary playwrights. She will certainly not wait long for producers to demand to see her next work.
“This was a play written because I missed someone and I missed myself when I was this young,” Anyanwu writes in a program note. “I conjured him. I thought of him. Conjured my past and wrote the things I might have said or did had I a second chance to walk in this world. So for all intents and purposes, though it feels autobiographical…This is still very much a work of fiction.”
The memories brought to the stage seem too personal and intimate to have been invented, but “it is always night” in this play, Anyanwu tells us.
The memories brought to the stage seem too personal and intimate to have been invented, but “it is always night” in this play, Anyanwu tells us. How much is memory, or what could have been memory? What shape may reality take to make a compelling story?
For an intermissionless hour and a half or so, Anyanwu, who stars in her own play as a character named Nkechi, cavorts with a fluidly moving cast of six others who all have symbolic names. Her parents are Papa, a Nigerian immigrant (Dayo Ade) and his wife NeNe (Omozé Idehenre). Bro (Marcus Henderson) is a hiphop-dancing Nigerian-American who has adopted some Black American mannerisms, movement and speech. MJG (Wade Allain-Marcus) is Nkechi’s best friend from school with whom she shares her first kiss, and MJG’s Mom (Carla Renata) becomes both a fantasy sparring partner and a supportive neighbor. JD (Mark Jude Sullivan) is the idealized white boyfriend.
JD is trying to be majorly sensitive to Nkechi—African immigrants in Bucks County are not so commonly seen—and asks if he is racist. “No,” she says, “innocent to the ways of other cultures.”
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The action takes place between 1992 and 2005, “also the beginning of time,” Anyanwu says, “and the future,” in the town of Bensalem, Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where the family has settled.
Nkechi has gone off to medical school, but she leaves it to come home and work on developing herself as a writer. Her project is to artfully interrogate the content and meaning of her close friendships and family relations. The main event that catapults her process is the sudden death of MJG in a car crash, thus the “good grief” that releases this flood of feeling.
Through pageantry, magic, revelatory fantasy, hallucination, nightmare, dream and the summoning of magical superpowers, the lives of this first-generation family assimilating into their suburban Pennsylvania community open up before us. A prickly, sardonic, rambunctious, raunchy humor suffuses the night.
More vital than the veracity of the stories is the unbounded lyricism of Anyanwu’s writing, the stream of memory, the free-associative flow of personal narrative that may or not be a reliable record. She is remembering people “who may have existed.” In any case, the writer says, “I’m not that person any more.” One comes away with the feeling that this loosely structured play seamlessly uniting past, present and myth, could be only one of many emerging from this fertile brain about the very same people and period.
Scenic design is by Stephanie Kerley Schwartz, costume design by Karen Perry, lighting design by Pablo Santiago, sound design by Adam Phalen, and Kathryn Bostic is composer. A splendidly assembled show!
Good Grief is a unique theatrical experience that will delight, entertain and inform any receptive theatergoer—not suitable for the young ’uns, however. The rainbow audience showed its appreciation and gratitude for this new work with frequent applause and laughter.
Good Grief plays at Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre through March 26. Performances are Tues. through Fri. at 8 pm, Sat. at 2 and 8 pm, Sun. at 1 and 6:30 pm, except March 14. The theatre is located at 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City 90232. For tickets and information, please visit CenterTheatreGroup.org or call (213) 972-4400.
Eric A. Gordon