BWW Review: GOOD GRIEF World Premiere at the Kirk Douglas Theatre
The recipient of the 2016 Humanitas/Center Theatre Group Playwriting Prize, Ngozi Anyanwu is an actress, writer, producer and director. She is a graduate of the University of California San Diego's MFA acting program and also holds a Bachelor of Arts Degree in Theatre from Point Park University. She has performed at the Pittsburgh Public Theater, Barrington Stage, Rattlestick Playwrights Theater and the Mark Taper Forum. Anyanwu is the founder and one of the original members of the 1st Generation Nigerian Project where she served as Artistic Director and wrote and performed along with several other Nigerian American female artists under the direction of John Gould Rubin (Bank Street Theatre, Women Center Stage Festival). She now serves as Co-Artistic Director of NOW AFRICA Playwrights Festival.
So as a way to celebrate International Women's Day this year, I attended the World Premiere of Anyanwu's new play GOOD GRIEF at Center Theatre Group's Kirk Douglas Theatre, running through March 26, 2017. The production is directed by Patricia McGregor, with Anyanwu performing as the lead character, Nkechi. This is the first of Anyanwu's plays to receive a full professional production with great techniical credits including an impressive movable set designed by Stephanie Kerley Schwartz, costumes designed by Karen Perry, lighting designed by Pablo Santiago, with sound design by Adam Phalen. The cast features, in alphabetical order, Dayo Ade, Wade Allain-Marcus, Ngozi Anyanwu, Marcus Henderson, Omozé Idehenre, Carla Renata and Mark Jude Sullivan.
GOOD GRIEF follows Nkechi (Anyanwu), a good Nigerian-American girl frozen in her own coming-of-age story. When tragedy strikes on an unplanned break from college, she retreats into her childhood home and reexamines the many steps she's taken on the way to adulthood, from first crush to missed connections, to the struggles of being a first-generation girl blending in to her suburban American reality between 1992 - 2005 in Bensalem, PA.
The scenes move from bedroom to bedroom, always at night, where Nkechi has deep conversations with two of the men in her life as they attempt to come to terms with their relationships. The stage is transformed as the two houses/bedrooms are moved on and off, placed next to a central platform that changes from one level to two as different rooms/scenes are portrayed. Although she cannot admit it until too late, her true love MJG (Wade Allain-Marcus) seems to be a real player at first until he falls deeply for her.
When MJG's tragic death leaves Nkechi shaken to her core, she returns home to her parents Papa and NeNe (Dayo Ade and Omozé Idehenre), where she sobs uncontrollably in her room at stage left as her parents attempt to comfort each other by "spooning" in their own room center stage. It is the most emotionally moving scene of the play, one in which any parent who has had to deal with their own child's great sorrow will certainly identify as they struggle to decide how best to comfort her and themselves. So moving was Ade's performance, I was totally amazed at the After Talk to learn this was his first stage appearance, as he is primarily known for his roles on many of the best dramatic TV series.
Nkechi also turns to Bro (Marcus Henderson), JD (Mark Jade Sullivan), and MJG's Mom (Carla Renata) as her grief overwhelms her ability to move on with her life. Their guidance slowly works its way into her consciousness, although regret for letting the love of her life slip away never leaves her soul.Anyanwu's writing must be part autobiographical since it is very apparent how tied to the story and central character she is, although she claims it was written for another actress. I cannot imagine anyone else being able to assume the character as well as she does. Her writing style is not chronological, so at times I did find myself confused a bit when characters appeared out of order with the play's action, centered on her grief as well as in the other characters' lives. But eventually, just like Nkechi's life, their grief steps aside and everything falls into place.
Tickets for GOOD GRIEF range from $25-$70 and are available by calling (213) 628-2772, online at www.CenterTheatreGroup.org, at the Center Theatre Group box office at the Ahmanson Theatre or at the Kirk Douglas Theatre box office two hours prior to performance. The 317-seat Kirk Douglas Theatre is located at 9820 Washington Blvd. in Culver City, CA 90232. Ample free parking and restaurants are adjacent.
Photos by Craig Schwartz.