REVIEW: Grappling with buried trauma in “The Homecoming Queen”
What adult hasn’t experienced a disquieting displacement upon returning to their childhood home? What person hasn’t experienced some trauma that colors their worldview and clouds their ability to be their best self?
These two painfully beautiful and universal ideas lie at the heart of Ngozi Anyanwu’s new memory play, “The Homecoming Queen”, which opened last evening at Atlantic Theater Company’s Stage 2 under the direction of Awoye Timpo.
As an actor, director, producer, and playwright, Ms. Anyanwu, a first generation American of Nigerian heritage, has fast established herself in theatre and television, and this world premiere production of her latest play proves why—for what it is, yes, but even more so for what it portends, the freshness of her voice and perspective holding promise for even greater work to come.
In “The Homecoming Queen”, Kelechi (Mfoniso Udofia), a successful Pulitzer Prize-nominated novelist in America, begrudgingly returns to her childhood home of Mbaise in Southeastern Nigeria (indigenous homeland of the Igbo people) after a 15 year absence to fulfill a promise to visit with her aging Papa (Oberon K.A. Adjepong) and seek some inspiration for her next book. Anxious, short-tempered, and overbearing, she is clearly not at home in her once familiar surroundings, nor in her own skin. But, like so much in this play, nothing is what it appears to be at the surface. Met by a frenetic chorus of four women literally representing her cousins and aunts—“It's the village, everyone's my cousin”, she later tells her Papa—but metaphorically haunting the stage as the ghosts of her lineage, Kelechi’s homecoming operates in one dimension of the play, as her father’s homecoming, that is his impending death, defines another.
A straight-faced but assertive house girl named Beatrice (a radiant Mirirai Sithole) crawls under Kelechi’s skin as a childhood mate, and one-time potential future mate, Obina (Segun Akande) pops back into the picture, all while Kelechi freely pops anxiety medication and has a panic attack. 15 years later, she is still grappling with the effects of a broadly hinted at sexual trauma from her youth and the premature loss of her mother, coupled with present day professional and creative pressures, set against a searching backdrop of identity and belonging. In the end, she comes to a peace—not a neat peace, but a stepping stone—before embarking on a next chapter that holds new challenges to overcome.
Kelechi is not an easy protagonist; she is abrasive and unlikable for most of the play, but that also feels important. “When have you ever known me to play a part?”, she asks Obina. We are slowly moving on from a time when women are expected to play a part, and when they don’t, face charges like the one I just made: “she’s unlikable”. Ms. Anyanwu purposely set out to write a “bitch”, issuing a challenge to the audience and to the other characters in the play. Papa calls her “Dis Rough gal ... who thinks she is a man.” A repeated, though secondary, theme throughout the play is Kelechi’s assumption of what are traditionally considered to be male characteristics, and how that impacts her relationships, particularly in a more traditional community than New York City.
Ms. Anyanwu admits that “The Homecoming Queen” started out as something more dark and revengeful than its final text reveals, reflecting a quiet impulse that guided her process and a reaction to the dark and revengeful world around us. What the final play offers is more mystery and reconciliation through a meditation on buried trauma, family history, and, ultimately, liberation into one’s true self. “Everything I love and hate is here”, Kelechi says of her Papa’s home. Who can’t relate to that?
Despite its thematic strengths, “The Homecoming Queen” is a trying play to watch. Little is said by its characters whose terse words more often than not belie their subtext. There are no monologues or big revelations, only the slow, sparse trickling of information that weaves an incomplete tapestry of the past and an even more unclear vision of the future. But, once again, that, too, feels important.
We might yearn for the attendant dramas in our own lives to be as plainly addressed as they are in many kitchen table plays, but we know that is not reality, or at least not most of the time. What is more common are disjointed conversations fraught with shame and discomfort and full of coded language that masks things that are just too hard to say out loud to our parents and loved ones. It is easier to take Papa’s approach: “Tomorrow is for forgetting the bad things of today.”
Sitting in the theatre, Ms. Anyanwu’s employment of these truths is frustrating, layering opacity where we instinctually desire clarity. There is a delicate balance to be struck in the dissemination of information that is not always met, and more concision, which pays dividends in drama, could aid the storytelling.
Some plays are difficult to watch but then haunt your mind; others are greatly enjoyed then easily forgotten. (Of course, others still, fit other boxes.) “The Homecoming Queen” is decidedly the former, even as it offers moments of levity and an infusion of Nigerian song and movement. The economical set and lighting by Yu-Hsuan Chen and Oona Curley, respectively, are sufficiently evocative alongside colorful and later-poignant costumes by Ntokozo Fuzunina Kunene, and the performances are excellent, save for Ms. Udofia (an acclaimed playwright), whose line reads occasionally feel unbelievable and rehearsed.
I am grateful to Atlantic Theater Company for giving Ms. Anyanwu, and her diverse company and creative team, a platform to share their considerable talent. As an artist, Ms. Anyanwu is not easily cabined nor traditional in her process or product, which makes her an exciting person to watch. I look forward to what she offers next.
Bottom Line: “The Homecoming Queen” by Ngozi Anyanwu is a mysterious and reconciliatory meditation on buried trauma, family history, and liberation into one’s true self through the story of a novelist returning to her native Nigeria to visit with her ailing father and confront ghosts from her past. Thematically taut but frustrating in its opacity, the play is a confident offering from an emerging playwright worth watching.
“The Homecoming Queen”
Atlantic Theater Company
330 West 16th Street
New York, NY 10011
Running Time: 1 hour, 45 minutes (no intermission)
Opening Night: January 22, 2018
Final Performance: February 18, 2018