Monday, January 22, 2018

146 (2017-2018): Review: THE HOMECOMING QUEEN (seen January 21, 2018)

“A Real Igbo Gal”

The welcome trend in mainstream theatres over the past several years of producing plays set in Africa, usually written, directed, and acted by artists with African-sounding names (a recent example being Jocelyn Bioh's School Girls: Or, the African Mean Girls Play), continues with Ngozi Anyanwu’s The Homecoming Queen, directed by Awoye Timpo (Jitney), at the Atlantic Theater Stage Two.
Oberon K.A. Adjepong, Mfoniso Udofia. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.
Perhaps its most ironically amusing point is that it’s set at a large, multi-roomed house on a family compound in the Igbo-speaking city of Mbaise, Imo State, Nigeria. That, you’ll recall, is the country to which our president pointed late last year when reportedly suggesting that its immigrants “go back to their huts.” He would, of course, also have included Nigeria among his “shithole” (or “shithouse,” if you will) countries. A visit to this play might disabuse him of such notions. 
Patrice Johnson, Vinie Burrows, Ebbe Bassey, Zenzi Williams. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.

Anyanwu’s central character is Kelechi (Mfoniso Udofia, a first-generation Nigerian American and herself a respected dramatist), daughter of Godwin Ekejuba (Oberon K.A. Adjepong), a widowed, ailing village chief. Kelechi, a successful novelist whose first book was a best-selling, Pulitzer finalist, returns from America, where’s she’s been living for 15 years. She left Nigeria when she herself was 15, following a traumatic event of which we very gradually learn.

Her chief reason for coming home is to care for her ailing Papa, who is dying. She also hopes to find inspiration for her next book, prompting—in a moment that leans toward the implausible—a sharp-tongued response to her impatient New York agent’s phone call requesting results. And, perhaps, she’ll be able to find peace from the torment she’s been suffering from regarding something that happened in Nigeria years before.

Kelechi discovers on her return that her American ways and attitudes clash uncomfortably with those of her abandoned Nigerian culture. Part of this requires us to take for granted that, because she began practicing as a girl, she speaks English with a profanity-riddled, decidedly American accent; on the other hand, she never mastered Igbo, whose words and expressions are sprinkled, sung, and chanted throughout.
Mfoniso Udofia, Vinie Burrows. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.
Actually, though, even the four women (Ebbe Bassey, Patrice Johnson, Zenzi Williams, and, at 89, the indomitable Vinie Burrows) who represent Kelechi’s cousins and aunties (a relational condition that seems endemic among the locals), and serve as a musical and dramatic chorus, speak English on some level. 

Presumably because of what happened on the neighboring compound years ago, the pill-popping Kelechi—romantically unattached following a breakup with her white boyfriend, whose name is used for a cheap laugh—is a quivering, unpleasant, self-centered mass of manic depression.
Mfoniso Udufia, Segun Akande. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.
She engages contentiously with her father, who characterizes her as a "rough gal," whom she’s not seen in so long, and for whose financial wellbeing she’s responsible. She also gives the deep chill —for a time, at least—to both her father’s precocious 15-year-old housegirl, Beatrice (Mirirai Sithole), and the handsome Obina (Segun Akande), in whom her father has placed certain hopes whose realization will go unspoken here.

The plot eventually reveals the relationships between Kelechi and Beatrice and Kelechi and Obina, the latter an undersized, 10-year-old houseboy and Kelechi’s playmate when Kelechi departed and now a fully grown, hunky banker (a profession the liberal Kelechi reviles for its corruption). The reasons for her aloofness are later both disclosed and dissolved within the play’s web of reconciliation and forgiveness.

Anyanwu’s script requires the narrative to jump back and forth in time, using light and sound to shift suddenly from the present to 15 years earlier, with the actors making instant adjustments between adult and child behavior.
Patrice Johnson, Mfoniso Udofia. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.
A fictional epilogue imagines how Kelechi transforms what she’s experienced in Nigeria into the first chapter of her new book, which, clearly, differs sharply from what we’ve just seen. It demonstrates Kelechi’s own belief in the power of the writer to use her skills to rewrite her history by covering truths with fictions.
Front: Vinie Burrows, Mirirai Sithole. Rear: Oberon K.A. Adjepong. Right: Segun Akande. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.
The play is acted on designer Yu-Hsuan Chen’s spare, narrow, wall-less, pale beige platform—smartly lit by Oona Curley—dividing the audience into two banks of facing seats, alley style, with the principal scenic component a flight of stairs to an upper level. A flap built into the platform opens to serve as the compound’s rope and pulley-operated well.
Mfoniso Udofia, Segun Akande. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.
The Homecoming Queen capitalizes on the roots movement of people rediscovering their ancestral cultures, and introduces consistently appealing Nigerian-inflected music (by sound designer Amatus Karim-Ali), singing, and choreographed movement (created by Hope Boykin). Most of the characters wear variations of colorful native garb, including eye-catching headdresses (thanks to designer Ntokozo Fuzunina Kunene) for the chorus, while Kelechi—until she too dons local garments—wears tight black slacks and a sleeveless white blouse.
Patrice Johnson, Oberon K.A. Adjepong, Mirirai Sithole, Segun Akande, Vinie Burrows, Mfoniso Udofia. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.
The action—particularly the chorus’s movement—flows freely on and around the platform space, marked off by four, large, square pillars. Even the surrounding walls are occupied by the chorus, a member or two of which may be performing somewhere behind you.
Oberon K.A. Adjepong, Segun Akande. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.
Udofia offers a compelling picture of the distraught, grumpy, not easy-to-like Kelechi, who would like to be “a real Igbo girl." As her father, Adjepong is every inch the imperious, demanding patriarch, while Akande is an attractive, convincing Obina, and Sithole is thoroughly delightful as the emotionally needy housegirl. 
Zenzi Willims, Ebbe Bassey, Patrice Johnson, Vinie Burrows. Photo: Ahron R. Foster.
The Homecoming Queen, whose title comes from its heroine’s having come home to help her father find eternal peace, excels at atmospheric local color; however, its episodic, flashback-filled structure and indirect secrets can sometimes be confusing, while what we learn of Kelechi’s girlhood tragedy is neither particularly overwhelming nor original.

I wanted to laugh more at this intermissionless, hour and 45-minute play’s comedy and cry more at its pathos. I left, though, impressed more by its performative and cultural values than its emotional ones.


Atlantic Theater Stage Two
330 W. 16th St., NYC
Through February 11