With two plays Off-Broadway this year, playwright Ngozi Anyanwu and director Awoye Timpo are quickly becoming a creative power couple. The Homecoming Queen at Atlantic Theater Company saw a novelist return home to Nigeria after years away, while Good Grief, which has just opened several blocks east at the Vineyard Theatre, explores the lives of Nigerian immigrants to the U.S. through their children.
Making everyone else feel lazy, Anyanwu also leads the cast of Good Grief as Nkechi, a young woman whose sprightly energy masks a deep seam of pain. Growing up in ultra-white Bucks County, Pa., Nkechi and her brother Bro (Nnamdi Asomugha) have always felt out of place, but the death of MJ (Ian Quinlan), Nkechi’s soulmate, has struck them both in ways they can neither fully understand nor articulate. Parents Papa and NeNe (Homecoming Queen vets Oberon K.A. Adjepong and Patrice Johnson Chevannes) are doing the best they can to understand Nkechi’s pain, but the generational and cultural divide may be too wide.
Anyanwu’s play mostly avoids the clichés that tend to reduce stories of death to stages-of-grieving checklists. Good Grief acknowledges the fickleness of memory by jumping around in time and doubling back on certain scenes, to show first how Nkechi (who goes by “N” since people have a hard time saying her name) wishes certain events happened, versus how they actually happened, inevitably in much more mundane, messy fashion.
N drops out of pre-med following MJ’s death, but she isn’t sure if it was just a convenient excuse to leave something she was only doing to please her parents. This is familiar ground for second-generation immigrant stories, but the tropes are made fresh by Timpo’s magical-realist direction, which favors natural, relaxed speech but concedes that even reality often feels unreal, especially when experienced through the prism of extreme emotional duress. Timpo and sound designer Daniel Kluger together create the play’s most moving scene by having N’s sobs emanate from the stage speakers instead of N herself, who cowers in a corner. This experience of sadness, as though viewed from outside oneself, is immediately familiar and heartbreaking.
Set designer Jason Ardizzone-West further divorces N’s memoryscape from tangible reality by rendering rural Bucks County without a single tree or hint of nature. The set is all steel girders and sliding panels of augmented pegboard. Like Ardizzone-West’s Emmy-winning design for this year’s Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert, the set serves primarily to sculpt and bend Oona Curley’s lights. Yet small stabs of realism, such a stereo playing Bone Thugs-N-Harmony’s “Tha Crossroads,” anchor meaningful moments with a kind of solidity, as with all forms of nostalgia.
Pop-culture nostalgia is actually the emotional currency for the younger characters in the play. In a single scene, N and Bro reference The Wire, Clarissa Explains It All, The Hulk, Coach Carter, Lean on Me, Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, “Conjunction Junction,” and DRS’s 1993 tribute to fallen friends, “Gangsta Lean.” These throwbacks are more than conversation fodder for the characters, though; they are landmarks that continue to define their self-image. Anyanwu seems to be suggesting, though without any reinforcement from the production itself, that it is this very adherence to pop culture totems that keeps N and Bro from properly dealing with their pain, and not their perceived difference from their white town. (And the play does go to great pains to imply that this difference is illusory, down to the inclusion of a nice white boy, JD, played by Hunter Parrish.)
The only “good” grief on display in Good Grief is Papa and NeNe’s. Though their Nigerian identity isolates them from their Americanized children, it also has allowed them to thrive while their children flounder. As N sobs upstairs, Papa and NeNe dance and rekindle their affection. It’s not cruel indifference, just hard-won perspective. “Go back to school,” Papa advises N. “Do first, feel second.”
Good Grief ends on a note of cosmic rejuvenation which the play, for all its creativity, never quite earns. In the end, grief is grief and there are really only two endings likely: triumph or capitulation. N is the play’s lodestar, but by framing her existence almost entirely through the men in her life, the outcome feels increasingly arbitrary. N deserves to be more than her sadness. Grief can be good or bad, but it isn’t necessarily interesting.
Ngozi Anyanwu’s Good Grief plays through Nov. 18 at the Vineyard Theatre (108 E. 15th St.). Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday through Thursday, and at 8 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. Matinees are at 3 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. For tickets, call (212) 353-0303 or visit vineyardtheatre.org.