Ngozi Anyanwu’s play, “Good Grief,” which debuted at the Kirk Douglas Theatre on March 5, poignantly illustrates that death freezes the deceased in time and often stops time for those left behind. The coming-of-age, lost first love story tackles familiar material from a fresh perspective – a first generation Nigerian-American girl – with wit and wisdom.
“Good Grief” follows Nkechi (who is played by Anyanwu) through her relationship with MJG (Wade Allain-Marcus), a neighbor boy whom she befriends as a young teen and for whom she eventually develops affection. When tragedy strikes, Nkechi withdraws into her suburban Pennsylvania childhood home to reexamine her life and loss. The audience readily empathizes with her when she cries out, “I don’t want to forget you, but I want to forget you … How are you everywhere and nowhere?”
She recalls various scenes on their journey to adulthood, awkward explorations and missed connections. The struggles of blending in are tough enough for any teen, much less one from a different cultural norm.
In several scenes, she offers fantasy versions of how things played out. The audience is watching along and then informed “that’s not how it went.” (Who has not wished a scene went differently?)
The death of her friend seems to paralyze Nkechi in life (realistically, the reluctance to embrace adulthood could have happened anyway). She puts off typical milestones like getting a driver’s license, losing her virginity, and returning to finish school. She explains, “Time passes and I can do noting about that. … People say you’ll forget; I don’t want to.”
Anyanwu received the 2016 Humanitas/Center Theatre Group Playwriting Prize. “Good Grief” is her first play fully mounted in a professional production, but she also shows her acting talent here. The actress/writer has an expressive face and eyes that speak volumes (think Uzo Aduba without the crazy).
She has an effective cast backing her inaugural effort. Dayo Ade and Omozé Idehenre add warmth and affection in their roles as her frustrated immigrant parents wondering how to help their adult child. Marcus Henderson teases and challenges her self-identity as Nkechi’s brother. (For example, she accuses him of sounding uneducated with his poor grammer and diction out of “The Wire.” Then he tells her she sounds like Melissa Joan Hart in “Clarissa Explains it All.”) Solidly supporting them are Allain-Marcus, Carla Renata as MJ’s mom, and Mark Jude Sullivan as JD, a neighbor boy/love.
Besides the cast, the interesting scenic design by Stephanie Kerley Schwartz helps Anyanwu bring the story to life. The set features two moveable houses/bedrooms that represent MJG’s and Nkechi’s domains (and undergo subtle changes to reflect their aging in the plot). In between, there is a flexible space that morphs. It serves, at times, as sitting space, a car, another bedroom, and a boxing ring (one of her fantasies).
Anyanwu is reportedly working on her next play. In the interim, her Douglas acting/playwright debut, “Good Grief” will be at the Culver City, Calif., theater through March 26, 2017.
By Dyanne Weiss
Performance March 5
Center Theatre Group: The World Premiere Of “Good Grief” Opens At Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre Sunday, March 5, 2017, at 6:30 P.M.
Broadway World: Ngozi Anyanwu’s GOOD GRIEF Wins Inaugural Humanitas/CTG Playwriting Prize
Performances: Investing in new Talent
Photos by Craig Schwartz. Courtesy of Center Theatre Group. Ngozi Anyanwu and Wade Allain-Marcus (top) and Dayo Ade and Omozé Idehenre (inset) in the world premiere of “Good Grief.”