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A CurtainUp Review
The Homecoming Queen

"It {writing} gives me power, power to rewrite my entire history and forget bad things happened here." — Kelechi
The Homecoming Queen
Mfoniso Udofia (Photo: Ahron R. Foster)
The illness or death of a parent has propelled many a novel, movie or stage plot about the return to one's first home. The longer the absence from that home, the more likely it is to trigger traumatic as well as happy memories. And so they do for Nigerian born American emigrant Kelechi (Mfoniso Udofia), the 30-year-old title character of Ngozi Anyanwu's finely characterized and staged The Homecoming Queen.

Since leaving her village fifteen years ago Kelechi has become thoroughly Americanized and a best selling novelist. However, she's been emotionally unable to go home again, except through her writing. She gives voice to this, when the illness of her father (Oberon K.A. Adjepong) does take her back and she meets up with Obina (Segun Akande), the childhood friend who was an integral part of both her good and horrifically bad memories. As she explains her writing vocation to him, "it gives me power, power to rewrite my entire history and forget bad things happened here."

The playwright's lead-ups to Kelechi's arrival at her father's house and everything that follows taps into the homecoming genre's many possibilities to develop the story line and to strike emotional chords. In The Homecoming Queen it brings to the surface feelings of alienation, hostility, regret, healing and hope. It involves renegotiating her interactions with her father and the aunties (Ebbe Bassey, Vinie Burrows, Patrice Johnson and Zenzi Williams acting as a colorful Greek Chorus) who welcome her back. Most predictable but touching is the change in Kelechi's initial antagonism towards Beatrice (Mirirai Sithole), the smart young house girl her father considers part of the family. For bittersweet heart-tug there are those then and now scenes with the already mentioned Obami and ultimately, there's a wonderful and decidedly surprising finale.

Despite all the familiar elements that unfold over the course of an hour and 45 uninterrupted minutes, the Nigerian setting isn't the only thing fresh and original about this play. Granted, some details are too glossed over — notably how Kelechi managed to survive in America on her own at such a young age. On the other hand the crucial information about the trauma that led to Kelechi's youthful and lengthy leavetaking but her scenes with Obami are subtly and sufficiently relevatory. What's more, even the most obvious plot points come off as fresh and somehow surprising, thanks to the mostly excellent writing, and the way director Awoye Timpothe has shepherded the cast and the crafts team to create a vividly theatrical experience.

For starters, Timpothe has reconfigured the theater so that the audience is seated on either side of Yu-Hsuan Chen's simple set. By extending the action to to the top of each seating the audience is given a sense of being immersed in the life of this village and these characters. Ntokozo Fuzunina Kunene costumes and Oona Curley's lighting enrich this authentic atmosphere.

As Homecoming Queen's Kelechi is the actress who does a fine job playing this deeply conflicted young woman. In fact, Mfoniso Udofia's powerful Sojourners & Her Portmanteau is one of my favorites of this growing genre of geographically linked plays. Mirirai Sithole, The Homecoming Queen's very winning Beatrice previously appeared in last year's hilarious School Girls; or, the African Mean Girls Play.

The two male characters —Oberon K.A. Adjepong as the father and — Oberon K.A. Adjepong and Segun Akande as Obima — both give multi-dimensional performances. To add visual flavor and do justice to Amatus Karim-Ali's original compositions, there are of course those brightly attired aunties.

Another pair of noteworthy recent plays with African or African-born characters were written by Danai Guriarathe, who, like Mfoniso Udofia, is both an actress and playwright. Her gripping Eclipsed was so well received at the Public Theater that it moved to Broadway the following February. Just a month later Familiar — this one set in America — had a successful run at Playwwrights Horizon.

None of these plays can currently be seen in New York, and though Homecoming Queen has already been extended a week, it too is a limited run. Until someone mounts an African play festival, there's also Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, one of the best new novels I've read this year. It's available in print or digitally and I wouldn't be surprised if it ends up being made into a movie (and why not a stage play?

Too bad the man in the White House (when he's not golfing in Florida or watching Fox TV) can't be made aware of what wonderful additions people from the countries he sees as "s-holes" are doing.

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The Homecoming Queen by Ngozi Anyanwu
Directed by Awoye Timpo
Cast: Oberon K.A. Adjepong (Papa), Segun Akande (Obina), Mirirai Sithole (Beatrice), Mfoniso Udofia (Kelechi); chorus- Ebbe Bassey, Vinie Burrows, Patrice Johnson and Zenzi Williams.
Scenic design by Yu-Hsuan Chen
Costume design by Ntokozo Fuzunina Kunene
Lighting design by Oona Curley
Sound & original compositions by Amatus Karim-Ali
Movement direction by Hope Boykin
Music direction by Nolufefe Mtshabe
Movement Director: Hope Boykin
Dialect Coach: Ebbe Bassey
Stage Manager: Gwendolyn M. Gilliam
Running Time: 1 hour 45 minutes, no intermission.
Atlantic Stage 2, 330 West 16th St.
From 1/10/18; opening 1/22/18; closing 2/18/18
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at 1/25/18 press performance

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