This is your last chance to see the world premiere staging of a world-class meditation on homecoming and identity. THE HOMECOMING QUEEN, Ngozi Anyanwu’s new play, will close Sunday in the West Village. It’s that good, so there will be other productions down the road. But you shouldn’t wait – break an appointment, see this play, and leave the theater thinking about your own homecoming experiences.
The very concept of home, the desire to go home, the struggle to do so, the uncertainty upon return – these have been a major preoccupation of the African world, including its diaspora. Not surprisingly since our diaspora was created by involuntary removal from homeland Africa. Aime Cesaire’s 1939 classic, “Notebook of a Return to the Native Land” (Cahier d’un retour au pays natal) addresses his reunion with the Caribbean after years in France, his metropole. His notebook became one of the building blocks of the negritude movement.
Our protagonist returns to Nigeria after a 15-year absence. She enters the family compound, faces the long-unseen aunties, cousins, and her father. Some sort of greeting ritual is in order, but she must first answer the question – who am I? If her self-image is that of a proud Ibo, one type of greeting is in order. But if she sees herself as a New Yorker, or maybe an Afropolitan, then another, more muted greeting will be forthcoming.
Kelechi is a bestselling in America author, coming home to monitor the status of her ailing, widowed father. At first glance, she seems like anything but a pleasant person. Not quite an ugly American – but close. Her first words are among the most popular, New York street expletives – and that’s not cool with her father, a local “chieftain” who respects tradition and would like for his daughter to do the same.
The returnee (or maybe the newcomer) is much too quick to remind folks about her remittances – the occasional payments that keep things tolerable in the compound. A dutiful IBO daughter would never disrespect her father in this way – but is she Ibo or New Yorker? After playing the remittance card, she at least momentarily gains the psychological upper hand in the compound. Kelechi verbally mistreats Beatrice, the teenager who Papa calls family but who she views as a mere house servant.
Home is not just a place, it’s a series of personal relationships with family, friends, – and sometimes family enemies. That part of home seems to elude sister Kelichi.
Our heroine’s father tries his best to remind her – how much she has forgotten about the value of home and family. But the New Yorker in her – where it’s best to act like a tough guy, know it all – is blocking the blessings. Can she get out of her own way and find a path home?
On the surface level, the play reminds me of Mutabaruka’s great and insightful poem, “It’s no good to live in a white man’s country too long.” Beatrice, her father, and an old childhood friend take turns reminding her about the negativity she has adopted from American society. It’s both tragic and funny how the supposedly unsophisticated can size up the cosmopolitan – and cut them down to size when necessary.
But the play is also about the making of a 15-year absence; how her past has created a gap that is wider than the Atlantic Ocean and more difficult to bridge.
The excellent, cohesive cast features Oberon Adjepong as papa, Mirirai Sithole as Beatrice, Segun Akande as Obina, and Mfoniso Udofia as the homegirl returned. All work hard and well.
Apparently, the playwright, in her youth, was paying attention – when the old folks were talking and as African neo-colonialist politics unfolded. I thought that brother Adepong was young to play an elder, but he convincingly delivered the wisdom of the ancestors. And Segun Akande’s role as childhood playmate and (spoiler alert – the only one here) future love interest Obina was notable for making a World Bank operative into a sympathetic character. It takes a great concept to pull that off.
I thought that the Beatrice was the most dynamic character in the production. She was the first to confront Kelechi with the problematic baggage she both literally and figuratively brought back from America. And she was the first to correct the visitor’s ignorance about modernity and Nigeria.
Mfoniso Udofia played her character’s belligerent, just-arrived aspect more convincingly than she did her “second act,” more sympathetic side (this is a no intermission). I think she’s destined to be a sought-after villain-ess both on and off-Broadway.
They say that there are no small roles; only small actors. As if to prove the point, we find the legendary performer/impresario Vinie Burrows -distracting our attention from the featured players – in her role as the grandma, a singing, dancing member of the chorus.
Awoye Timpo has directed a fantastic combination of comedy, tragedy, mystery, and affection. Similarly, Ngozi Anyanwu has conceptualized a fertile platform upon which to explore the idea of home. With thousands of homeless in metro New York, and millions of homeless-through-war refugees, this exploration of home and family is right on time. This is the closing weekend.