Flashlights shine through holes in the metal walls of the ever-shifting, double-leveled set, creating stars reflected throughout the audience and the theater. Just as Artemis was forever in search of a way to commemorate Orion, so is Nkechi searching for the words to describe her recently lost companion in Good Grief by Ngozi Anyanwu and directed by Awoye Timpo, playing at the Vineyard Theatre this fall.
The play does not, as the title may suggest, have anything to do with Charlie Brown or the world of Charles Schultz, but is a love song about losing your best friend. Good Grief is lyrical and human. It explores the world of the stars, of gods and lineage, while remaining grounded in those small human moments between friends, brothers, family, lovers, and is sure to touch the heart of anyone who has ever lost someone they loved.
When you’re processing the loss of a loved one, it’s hard to let go of your vision of them. In watching the piece, one can tell how deeply personal the story is and it feels that Anyanwu, as both playwright and leading lady, is processing her story through the experience of bringing Nkechi’s to life. Her performance doesn’t do honor to her words; while being heartfelt and engaged, she is also restrained and inhibited, speeding through scenes and reciting her poetry, while often missing the heart at the core of it.
However, Anyanwu is supported by an incredible ensemble, who find moments to slow the speeding-train pace of many of the play’s scenes and breathe air into moments, allowing Anyanwu’s beautiful words to dance free.
Ian Quinlan is charming and heartbreakingly honest as the millennial James Dean and best friend to Nkechi, MJ. There is also a particularly delightful scene between Nkechi’s parents, Papa (played by Oberon K.A. Adjepong) and NeNe (played by Patrice Johnson Chevannes) where NeNe wears down a previously brusque Papa, asking him to spoon, “it’s what couples do now.”
It would have been nice to see more of these ensemble characters, and learn about their relationship to MJ, friendship, grief, and Nkechi. The piece could have given more time developing her relationships with Bro (Nnamdi Asomugha) and MJ’s Mom (Lisa Ramirez), who enter for brief moments into Nkechi’s story before fading away.
Set in Bucks County on evenings from 1992-2005, the scenic design by Jason Ardizzone-West felt too cold and industrial to convey the safety of the green-grass suburbs and the love and warmth that these characters feel for each other. With the harsh lines of metal slabs approximating a house shape on a white-grey backdrop, the audience feels less at home and more in a cerebral space appropriate for Nkechi’s moments of searching within herself, but out-of-place in the more common intimate, love-filled scenes between characters.
Overall, Good Grief is a moving piece that will make you feel feelings and bring you back to moments you’ve shared with your best friend or your first love in all of the best, awkward, and human ways. “I try to cover you up, but you’re everywhere,” Nketchi says, “How are you everywhere and nowhere...” Good Grief looks at the emptiness that lost loved ones leave within us and asks how we begin to fill ourselves up again: do we move on? How can we? It is a show that is worth seeing, despite feeling under-developed and sometimes misled in its design and performance.
(Photo by Carol Rosegg)
What the popular press says...
"Good Grief still registers throughout as an affecting study of the ambivalence of bereavement. And it is acted by a sensitive cast that finds the authentic emotion within even the most stylized scenes."
Ben Brantley for New York Times
"Playwright Ngozi Anyanwu has a specific talent: She can craft an exchange in which two people reveal how much they care about each other. In Good Grief, her satisfyingly unsad tragedy at the Vineyard Theatre, the playwright indulges that gift to its utmost."
Helen Shaw for Time Out New York
"There is much to admire here, particularly in Anyanwu’s gift for dialogue and for depicting the experience of a second-generation African American growing up in lily-white suburbia when Tupac and Biggie were just as popular as The Incredible Hulk and “The Goonies.” (The snippets of hip-hop classics played on boomboxes, of course, add just the right touch.) And both as actress and playwright, Anyanwu also has a gift for breaking the fourth wall to reshape her memories — sometimes following reimagined scenes with shorter takes of what “really” happened. Indeed, some lines are repeated verbatim by different characters in subsequent scenes, to further challenge our grip on what might be true."
Thom Geier for The Wrap
External links to full reviews from popular press...