The Homecoming Queen
Every sad story begins with a celebration in Ngozi Anyanwu’s new play.
Kelechi Ekejuba is an American woman, a New Yorker specifically. We first hear her exiting a cab and complaining about the exorbitant fare before insisting on carrying her own bags. She's not exiting onto Madison Avenue, though, but into her childhood home in Mbaise, Nigeria. Ngozi Anyanwu's new play at Atlantic Stage 2 is called The Homecoming Queen, but we wonder if this is really Kelechi's home. She hasn't returned in 15 years and for very good reasons. Like unfolding an old coat packed away in storage, puffs of putrid air waft into the air as we get the full view of life not only as it was for Kelechi, but as it might have been.
At the time of the play, Kelechi (Mfoniso Udofia) is a best-selling author and Pulitzer finalist, by all indications an immigrant success story. Her aunties and cousins (Ebbe Bassey, Vinie Burrows, Patrice Johnson, and Zenzi Williams) greet her by singing "Nigeria's daughter is back," while her father (Oberon K.A. Adjepong) grandly receives her in what she calls "the Coming to America chair."
We want to be happy for Kelechi and her triumphant return, but the nasty way she treats the house girl, Beatrice (Mirirai Sithole), sours our goodwill. We also wonder why she is so cold to Obina (the mysterious and handsome Segun Akande), a childhood friend who used to fill Beatrice's role when Kelechi was young. No longer a servant, but an employee of the World Bank, he has also done well for himself. But Kelechi is unimpressed. Over the course of 100 minutes, we slowly begin to understand the traumatic events that led Kelechi to leave home, lose her accent, and create a new life in a faraway land.
Shifting accents are usually a sure sign of sloppy acting, but they tell a crucial story in The Homecoming Queen thanks to the careful work of dialect coach Ebbe Bassey. Obina lapses into international British on a phone call to work, while Kelechi wears her American accent like armor around her relatives. Yet when Beatrice proves unresponsive, Kelechi switches to her in a Nigerian voice, stabbing her with a rhetorical "eh?" like a diner taking up a steak knife upon encountering tougher meat. Better than any play I've seen, The Homecoming Queen captures the everyday theater we perform to convince ourselves and those around us of who we really are.
The actors embody these overlapping identities in thoughtful and nuanced performances. Udofia (best known as the playwright behind Sojourners and Her Portmanteau) plays Kelechi with an uncomfortable mixture of self-assurance and doubt, which feels about right for a character who has built a livable structure on a shaky foundation, and still feels unstable in it. Sithole is far more self-assured as Beatrice, almost unnervingly so for a 15-year-old servant. Adjepong convincingly portrays a sick man who clings to his role as patriarch, even as the outward signs of his authority wane. The women of the chorus have created an authentic family dynamic that not only provides much of the comic relief of the play, but makes us understand how love and oppression often come in the same package.
We feel that viscerally through Yu-Hsuan Chen's set, which invites us into the yard of the family compound. Stairs and patios cut through and wrap around the audience as the aunties sit around the periphery, watching and quietly commenting on everything. It's hard to believe that any secret could be kept in a place where everything is observed, but power affords silence.
Director Awoye Timpo stages the production with a keen eye for detail, allowing the ghosts of this Nigerian Manderley to materialize in slow and subtle ways. Lighting designer Oona Curley facilitates flashbacks with distinct shifts that help us to know exactly what we are looking at, even as the past bleeds into the present. Amatus Karim-Ali's stirring original music adds an element of magic and ritual to the show.
While the play becomes a bit shaggy and unfocused in the second half, The Homecoming Queen ends on a high note, vaulting over the chasm between hope and reality by tying Kelechi's story to a continuous line. Anyanwu reminds us that even when our dreams don't come true, new ones spring eternal.