Don’t go to The Homecoming Queen expecting a story involving tailgate parties and Hail Mary passes. This thoughtful, emotionally wracking drama doesn’t even take place in the United States. It’s the story of a homecoming of its heroine, Kelechi, to the African village in Nigeria that she left 15 years earlier to build a life in the U.S. It’s about culture shock, revenge, guilt, and, unexpectedly but pertinently, the damage wrought by rape.
In a series of scenes punctuated by flashbacks, playwright Ngozi Anyanwu shows Kelechi’s arrival back in her African village. The costumes by Ntokozo Fuzunina Kunene immediately mark Kelechi as an outsider. All the African women (a chorus of four) wear bright kente clothing; Kelechi is in black, including a leather jacket, with her hair carefully braided. The village women pluck at Kelechi’s clothes and unzip her suitcase to fish through it. Whether that’s culturally acceptable in Nigeria, it makes Kelechi sympathetic to those with Western sensibilities, and it’s a smart move by Anyanwu, because Kelechi throughout the play is going to try one’s patience, even as the superb actress Mfoniso Udofia walks a thin line in making her both fascinating and irritating.
Kelechi, an author who is having a dry spell, is strong-willed, and she butts heads with her father, Oga (Oberon K.A. Adjepong), who wants her settled nearby, in Nigeria. Kelechi takes pills and seems an emotional wreck without them; she is always asking for a glass of water too. Oga looks askance at that “weakness.” He refuses to take the pills his own doctor has prescribed. “I may not be what I once was. But I am the whole me,” he declares.
Flashbacks show the life Kelechi had as a child, and her friendship with a slightly built boy named Obina, whom her father took in; although he worked as a houseboy, he became Kelechi’s best friend. Now the servant slot is filled by Beatrice (Mirirai Sithole), an orphaned cousin of Kelechi’s whose parents have both died. Kelechi, whose own mother died when she was a child, treats Beatrice almost as a slave, barking orders at her, responding brusquely to her questions. She is as autocratic as Oga without realizing it. Nonetheless, the shy and sly Beatrice isn’t cowed; the women are as tough as the men in this Igbo society. At one point, Oga asks Obina, “What is tomorrow for?” and Obina responds, as if it’s a catechism, “Tomorrow is for forgetting the bad things of today.”
Anyanwu allows her story to unfold gradually, as Kelechi slowly accepts Beatrice as a presence in the house and comes to understand her father, who was once emotionally abusive but has softened somewhat. There are also moments with the village women that provide gentle comic relief. Still, Kelechi has returned because Oga is dying, and much of their past must be sifted through before that happens.
The grown Obina shows up, too. He is now a wealthy employee of the World Bank, vividly embodied by Segun Akande with pride, strength, gentleness and decency as a counterpoint to Kelechi’s cynicism and emotional fragility, although they share a terrible secret. It’s also an indication of Anyanwu’s skill that a crucial plot twist lies almost in plain sight, though you may not see it until she has sprung it.
Director Awoye Timpo has staged the play in traverse, and at times the chorus sits doing washing and chanting behind the top bleacher seats, so that one is encompassed by the village life; one watches the women opposite, while hearing the chants close behind. Hymns are sung sporadically, and life is celebrated—in stark contrast to Kelechi, who seems scarred by it and afraid of it. When Obina asks if he can touch her, to whom he was so close as a child, Udofia summons a long sequence of trembles, tears and twitches before letting him put his arms around her. It’s a risky, magnificent performance.
Anyanwu goes wrong in supplying a sort of epilogue that comes out of nowhere, and confuses what has gone before. It seems like a vision of what might have been, but it jarringly reverses the tone and the action preceding it, the way the famous dream season of Dallas undermined a whole season’s episodes. Still, there is so much to admire in the writing and acting of The Homecoming Queen that this misstep may be forgiven.
The Homecoming Queen plays through Feb. 18 at Atlantic Stage 2 (330 W. 16th St.) Evening performances are at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday; matinees are at 2:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, and at 2:30 p.m. Jan. 31 and Feb. 7. Tickets begin at $50 and may be ordered by calling OvationTix at 866-811-4111. They may also be purchased in person at the Linda Gross Theater box office (336 West 20th Street between 8th and 9th avenues) or by visiting atlantictheater.org.