There is a mythic quality to Ngozi Anyanwu’s new play Good Grief. With its hyper-theatrical style, it is as far from kitchen-sink realism as it is possible to get. The play, in which the playwright plays the lead character, Nkechi, weaves in and out of reality while shuttling back and forth in time. The program note says it best: “Time/Place—The play takes place between 1992 and 2005. Also the beginning of time…and the future. We are in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Bensalem to be exact. And it is always night.”
In the present, Nkechi (played with infectious energy and passion by Ms. Anyanwu) is a medical student on hiatus from university, perhaps permanently. She struggles with burgeoning love and soul-warping loss centered on her bond with MJG (the excellent Wade Allain-Marcus), with whom she has had a more-than-just-friend relationship since elementary school. They are attracted to each other, but spar in faux hostile repartee. They remain fast friends throughout school and tilt toward awkward romance as they mature, as close as close can be to intimacy, but never penetrating through an awkward reserve. It is not a spoiler to reveal, as the play does within minutes of starting, that the window of opportunity closes with the sudden death of MJG in a car crash.
As she tries to cope with loss, Nkechi creates different realities out of her memories, stopping at times to say, “No, it wasn’t like that…” and starting again. The news of death is first presented as a wrestling match between Nkechi and MJG’s Mom (Carla Renata), who tag teams with a masked partner, Nkechi’s older brother, Bro (Marcus Henderson). Bro is a smart, educated young man who, dismayed by social realities, masquerades in ghetto style clothes, speech, and hip hop movement. Nkechi stops the action, as she does several more times during the play, saying, “No, it wasn’t like that.” She then gets the unvarnished truth from MJG’s Mom.
Nkechi has many scenes with MJG, as well as with Bro, and her Nigerian immigrant parents, ebullient Papa (Dayo Ade) and her loving mother, psychiatric nurse, NeNe (Omozé Idehenre). She also meets up with JD (Mark Jude Sullivan), who was a senior a few years ahead of her in school, a boy that all the girls, including Nkechi, swooned for.
Patricia McGregor directs, and judging by the results, pretty damned well. The production boasts a fine scenic design by Stephanie Kerley Schwartz that suggests the two rooms of MJG and Nkechi, which are positioned on opposite sides of the stage. A platform between them moves silently up and down the stage as needed. The rooms have a skeletal frame that looks like a child’s drawing of a house. These rooms, moved around by the cast, glide so smoothly and easily it seems they rest on ball bearings. Pablo Santiago’s lighting design complements the set and suits the action. Costumes by Karen Perry support action and enhance character, as does the sound Design by Adam Phalen.
I have seen a few plays where the playwright takes the lead or sometimes a supporting role, as Luis Valdez did when an actor had to drop out of a 2002 production of Zoot Suit at El Teatro Campesino. He was superb, of course, in the role of the main character’s father. It seemed to me like Shakespeare had stepped in to play Polonius. But for a brand new play, I think that is a risky choice. Ngozi Anyanwu, however, is the nuclear reactor that powers the play with her performance. She is so strong, so full of life, so passionate, commanding the stage with such power and emotion, that the audience roars with laughter or sits in stunned, rapt silence at the pathos of it all. Think this is critical overstatement? See the play for yourself.
Good Grief runs through March 26 at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City. See it while you can.