OnStage Associate Los Angeles Critic
“Tell me a story. Something that’s true, something that’s false, something that seems familiar. Something that sounds like it could be true.” This line really encapsulates the simultaneously realistic and dreamlike feeling of Good Grief, a world premiere play written by and starring Ngozi Anyanwu, now playing at Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre.
Good Grief tells the story of Nkechi (Anyanwu), nickname ’N,’ a first generation Nigerian-American growing up in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. In a series of scenes presented in a non-linear fashion, we see Nkechi come of age, starting as a child and ending as a 20-something who has taken a leave of absence from medical school and is questioning her future. The story centers around her relationship with her neighbor, best friend, and sometimes romantic interest, MJG (Wade Allain-Marcus), who dies unexpectedly in an accident while Nkechi is on said break from medical school. As she reexamines formative, key moments from their complicated and special relationship while trying to work through her grief, she interacts with her mother (Omoze Idenhenre), her father (Dayo Ade), her brother (Marcus Henderson), MJG’s mother (Carla Renata), and an old crush from her teenage years, JD (Mark Jude Sullivan), attempting to find a new understanding of the world now that the impossible has happened.
It is unknown if Anyanwu’s story is at all autobiographical, but it certainly seems like it might be. The characters talk like real people, feel like real people, and seem like they could easily be your neighbors. Nkechi often breaks the fourth wall to address the audience, making clear that while she is remembering and retelling these moments from her life, everything you are seeing may not be exactly what actually happened. It is very typical for time and perspective to influence the way you remember events from your past, particularly as memories fade, just as there are some experiences any of us would love the chance to redo.
There are moments Nkechi stresses she really wants to get right, such as a conversation with MJG’s mother the day of his funeral, and others she freely admits to revising for the better, such as the night she lost her virginity. Characters occasionally repeat phrases previously spoken by other people, forcing you to constantly question if Nkechi has reattributed certain moments based on the way she wishes they’d happened. Also, every scene takes place at night, because what story isn’t improved by a more mysterious setting?
Anyanwu won the 2016 Humanitas/Center Theatre Group Playwriting Prize for Good Grief, and deservedly so. The script is staggeringly good, and her vulnerable, genuine performance is just as stellar. The remaining six cast members also do a wonderful job, particularly Allain-Marcus, who brings MJG, a bit of an enigma whose arrogance attempts to mask a good heart and often succeeds, to life. The set (Stephanie Kerley Schwartz) is simple, consisting primarily of simplified versions of Nkechi and MJG’s bedrooms, which rotate and transform as needed, and the lighting scheme (Pablo Santiago) is smart, with lightbulbs hanging from the ceiling of the stage seeming to represent not only the stars and the big picture of the universe, but also the different parts of Nkechi’s thoughts and memories, lighting up accordingly as she reaches various revelations. Directed by Patricia McGregor, the narrative is remarkably easy to follow despite jumping around in time—it helps that both Anyanwu and Allain-Marcus are hilariously good at embodying the mannerisms of children and teenagers as needed.
While the incident that inspires Nkechi to relive this story is incredibly sad, the play contains a lot of humor. In an early scene, 15-year-old Nkechi tries to convince MJG to help her practice kissing before she goes on her first date with JD. When he attempts to refuse, she exclaims, frustrated, “you’re impeding my social progress!” Nkechi is a very relatable protagonist—she’s wise beyond her years, yet also a little awkward, a little lost. While her immigrant parents’ attempts to help her navigate her grief speak to the specificity of the Nigerian-American culture, her story of first love and first loss is incredibly universal. Good Grief is a magnificent piece of writing that proves Anyanwu is one to watch in the theater world, and Center Theatre Group has done it again with another fantastic production.
Good Grief runs at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City through 3/26. Tickets start at $25 and can be purchased at www.centertheatregroup.org. Photo credit: Craig Schwartz.