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How do we document sorrow?
Hedgerow Theatre Company presents Ngozi Anyanwu’s Good Grief
There’s a moment early on in Good Grief, the semi-autobiographical memory play by Ngozi Anyanwu now onstage at Hedgerow, where our melancholic protagonist remembers her first kiss. The quintessentially dreamy homecoming king has asked Nkechi (Morgan Charéce Hall) on a date, so she’s imploring her best friend MJ (Dell Jackson) for his advice. Where should you put your hands? How long should it last? How do you know when it’s the right moment?
MJ thinks for a moment, then leans forward to kiss her. When it happens, the lights flare blue across the stage; time seems to stop in the crucible of memory. This is of course how Nkechi remembers it: slightly unreal, somehow both fleeting and forever, lit under a cerulean glow, as if it were set upon a stage.
It’s a shame, then, that the rest of the play lacks such evocative moments. As Nkechi navigates her memories and her mourning, unsure of how to process the death of her best friend, the script also seems uncertain about how it should document this grief.
The nature of grief?
Directed in its regional premiere by Zuhairah McGill and Phillip Brown, Good Grief follows Nkechi, a med-school dropout, as she returns to her childhood home in Bensalem, Pennsylvania, in the wake of MJ’s sudden death. Through the play, we alternate between scenes of present sorrow, where Nkechi’s Nigerian parents (also McGill and Brown, played with brusque but loving tenor) lament her extended bereavement; and scenes of past remembrance, where she tries to preserve an image of her best friend.
The script takes several approaches to exploring Nkechi’s sorrow, but they come across as a cascade of scattershot ideas instead of a fully realized portrait of grief. Take, for instance, a scene where Nkechi combats her grief, embodied in human form, in a televised pro-wrestling match, complete with color commentary. Or another scene where the actors freeze in half-darkness and a mysterious figure in Nigerian dress strides across the stage, intoning notes of heartbreak. While you could argue that such a tonal variety is part and parcel of the nature of grief, none of these vignettes are developed to a resonant degree.
The edges of remembrance
Similarly underbaked are the play’s ruminations on religion, which serve mostly as decorative bookends. In these scenes, African deities stand silhouetted behind a golden curtain, waxing poetic on sorrow and storytelling. It may be an attempt to frame Nkechi’s remembrances of MJ as a grand act of mythology, but the idea struggles to connect in the absence of her own religious beliefs. We never get a sense of Nkechi’s inner spiritual life, so the show’s portrayal of religion seems oddly disconnected from its central character.
Messy in its depiction of the present, the play is thus most successful in its retreats to the past. This is largely thanks to the tender work of Hall and Jackson, who convey the freedom of childhood, the fears of adolescence, and the tenuous dance between best friends, someday lovers. It is in these delicate moments that the staging feels most attuned to the script, the cavernous space of the Hedgerow Theatre an appropriate canvas for Nkechi’s memory.
And yet, even in these scenes, there is still a certain tension that is wanting. One of the joys of the memory play form is to witness the jagged edges of remembrance, the details that don’t quite add up, all relayed by and filtered through the prism of the narrator. But Good Grief, for all its care in memorializing him, presents MJ as an unambiguously good friend: someone who is remembered because he is missed, not because he is complicated.
Near the end of the play, Nkechi lays in bed, rewinding and recalling her memories of MJ. “I just want to get this right,” she says in quiet determination. It’s a touching moment, but I can’t help but wish that the messiness of her thoughts had been more present in the memories themselves.
What, When, Where
Good Grief. By Ngozi Anyanwu, directed by Zuhairah McGill and Phillip Brown. $35. Through February 26, 2023, at Hedgerow Theatre, 64 Rose Valley Road, Rose Valley. (610) 565-4211 or hedgerowtheatre.org.
Masks are optional for patrons and guests inside Hedgerow.
Hedgerow is a wheelchair-accessible venue. Call the box office or email [email protected] with specific seating needs. There will be open-captioned performances of Good Grief on February 23–26. Visit Hedgerow’s accessibility page for more info.
This play is best experienced by those age 18+ due to profanity and mature themes.
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