Ngozi Anyanwu and Ian Quinlan in ‘Good Grief.’ (Photo: Carol Rosegg)
By Ryan Leeds
Girls might run the world but black female playwrights are distilling the heart and hardships of living in it. According to a recent New York Times article by Jeremy O. Harris (whose own play begins performances at New York Theatre Workshop later this month), the New York theatrical season is perhaps featuring more writers of color and women than ever before.
Nigerian-American playwright/actor Ngozi Anyanwu is just one of those many voices weaving powerful stories. Currently, she is starring in her own work—the wonderfully tender play, Good Grief. In 2017, it received a world premiere at Los Angeles Center Theater Group. Earlier this week, it opened Off-Broadway at the Vineyard Theater.
Coming of age tales are so popular that they have their own genre. Rarely, however, are they told through the lens of young African Americans. Rarer still is the setting. Anyanwu’s drama takes place between 1992 and 2005 in Bucks County, Pennsylvania—a part of the state with a predominantly white demographic. Yet Anyanwu, a native of the area, has apparently followed the age-old advice, “write what you know”. Her character Nkechi (or simply N) knows what it’s like to wrestle with the past and make sense of life’s memories, even if they didn’t exist as she remembered them. In some cases, they may not have even existed at all.
N is a young woman with the proverbial world on a string, but her Papa (Oberon K.A. Adjepong) stifles it with his well-intended, but rigid temperament. Papa cannot seem to understand why his daughter continues to grieve for MJ (Ian Quinlan) her fellow classmate and friend who was killed in a car accident. “The world does not stop for you,” he tells her during her first driving lesson. “Was he your huzban? Carrying on like it was YOU who lost your life. What did you lose? NOTING.” For a 15-year-old however, it is practically everything.
Grief does not always claim accurate recollection. “Maybe I’m remembering something or someone else,” N asks herself. “Maybe I’m mixing him up with another love or person or feeling or time. But maybe he did exist.”
In fact, he did. So much, in fact, that N cannot overcome the loss. “I try to cover you up but you’re everywhere,” she claims. “How are you everywhere and nowhere? Why do I see you in every smile? Why do I feel you in every kiss?”
Anyanwu’s writing is both ethereal and spiritual, adding levity to what would otherwise be a heavy trudge of trauma. Yet she veers off course when she allows her characters to ramble on about mythical figures. Both the beginning and end of the show are framed by references to Zeus, Apollo, Neptune, and Artemis. Although she tries to draw comparisons between earthly and heavenly bodies, they do not always make sense.
Good Grief is at its best when it delves into the human interactions, especially with the depiction of her Papa and Mama aka “NeNe” (Patrice Johnson Chevannes). A charming and innocent bedroom scene involving spooning is particularly amusing.
Director Awoye Timpo handles the serious nature here with more mirth than one could expect. Avid theatergoers will recognize elements of Next to Normal, Spring Awakening, and Dear Evan Hansen. What makes Good Grief so special is the unique lens from which this story is told. With playwrights like Anyanwu weaving the narrative, it is worth noticing.
What other critics are saying:
Its story — about a young woman grieving the death of her longtime best friend, who might also have been the love of her life — is a heavy one, and could quickly have gotten sucked into the whirlpools of weepiness. But Anyanwu and Timpo give it lift and breath. — Sara Holdren, Vulture
Good Grief still registers throughout as an affecting study of the ambivalence of bereavement. And it is acted by a sensitive cast that finds the authentic emotion within even the most stylized scenes. — Ben Brantley, New York Times
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Ryan Leeds is a freelance theater journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics Magazine. Follow him on @Ry_Runner or Facebook.