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Theatre in Review: The Homecoming Queen (Atlantic Theater Stage II)

Mfoniso Udofia, Segun Akande. Photo: Ahron R. Foster

The playwright Ngozi Anyanwu has quite a potentially wrenching story to tell in The Homecoming Queen, and I only wish she had better control of her material. The title character is Kelechi, born in Nigeria but long a resident of the US, where she has found fame as a novelist. "Number one best-seller," an old friend comments, adding that she was a Pulitzer finalist. "I didn't win," Kelechi says, dismissively. She became a writer, because, she notes, "It gives me power, power to rewrite my entire history and forget bad things happened here." Actually, she might want to rethink that proposition: From her first entrance, Kelechi is a four-star basket case, popping anxiety meds like Necco wafers, feuding on the phone with her agent, snapping at the help, and trading abrasive, unamusing wisecracks with Godwin, her father. "You're old, dad. Aren't you already one foot out the door?" she asks him; indeed, he is old and dying.

Also, she is borderline abusive to Beatrice, the fifteen-year-old house girl, a relative whom Godwin has taken into his house. Kelechi lords it over everyone, reminding them that they are living on her dime. Also, when the family is visited by Obina -- once the houseboy and Kelechi's playmate, now an employee of the World Bank -- she is openly hostile, calling him "a professional crook." In her direst moment, she undergoes a manic attack so violent that you wonder if she wouldn't be better off in a room with padded walls.

As it happens, Kelechi is sitting on a powder keg of memories having to do with rape and arson; these are never talked about, as per Godwin's dictum, as if silence alone could erase the pain. (At times, I wondered if Kelechi wasn't suffering from an advanced case of repressed memories; apparently everyone believes, as Obina puts it, "Tomorrow is for forgetting the bad things of today.") The atrocities are so fuzzily rendered as to be almost entirely without dramatic force, and the script offers nothing like the reckoning they would seem to deserve. There is also a key piece of evidence, related to Kelechi's past, lying in plain sight; it is so obvious that you're likely to guess it long before it is announced.

Anyanwu often has a nice way with a line: Looking askance at the golden throne on which Godwin rests, Kelechi says, "Seriously, dad, is the Coming to America chair necessary?" And I like the way she tells the ever-watchful Beatrice, "You think loud." There are also some groaners, including Godwin's penchant for remembering the name of Kelechi's American ex-boyfriend, Graham, as "Mr. Crackah." Under the direction of Awoye Timpo, it's not always clear if scenes are unfolding in the present or the past, or in Kelechi's mind.

Given a character who is either harshly dismissive or falling apart, Mfoniso Udofia often seems unsure how to approach the role of Kelechi, and I don't blame her. I know that this is supposed to be part of her psychological displacement, but at times she acts like she has never set foot in Nigeria before; neither do we get a sense of her life in America, a country she was dispatched to as an adolescent. (Who took care of her? How did she become a literary star? We never learn.) She is both the heart of the play and a cipher. Segun Akande brings tremendous dignity and charisma to the role of Obina, and he and Udofia generate some genuine heat. Mirirai Sithole, last seen to good advantage in School Girls; or, the African Mean Girls Play, is a powerfully insinuating presence as Beatrice, one of those wise-beyond-her-years adolescents who are more plentiful on theatre stages than in real life. ("I read Things Fall Apart when I was eight," she says, adding, "I read Shades of Grey when I was twelve.") Included in the female chorus that surrounds Godwin's compound, singing and dancing, is the great Vinie Burrows, who can turn the smallest role into an indelible cameo.

Yu-Hsuan Chen's two-level wraparound set (with the audience on two sides) effectively immerses us in the life of the compound. Oona Curley's lighting might do more to delineate the different time frames and separate fantasy from reality, but this problem is built into the script. Ntokozo Fuzunina Kunene's colorful African costumes contrast nicely with Kelechi's standard black-and-white ensemble. Amatus Karim-Ali supplied the evocative African music and sound effects.

If The Homecoming Queen is ever going to become the gripping drama that its story suggests, it will need stronger confrontations and a summing-up of the consequences of trying to bury the past and the damage that has festered over the years. As it is, Anyanwu does something I though impossible: She is making violent assault and revenge seem really quite anodyne. -- David Barbour

(23 January 2018)

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