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Ngozi Anyanwu stars in her new play Good Grief at the Vineyard Theatre
Media depictions of black folk frequently flatten out their complexity. The relentlessly chipper black neighbor on that sitcom, or the magically wise black teacher in that movie only exist onscreen. In the New York premiere of Good Grief at the Vineyard Theatre, playwright and star Ngozi Anyanwu counters those one-dimensional stereotypes with a poignant portrayal of a smart, strong yet vulnerable black woman -- the kind of nuanced character you'd find in shows about people from any other culture. "My goal with this particular play is for audiences to see themselves in me, whether they look like me or not," she says. "Because we're the same."
Set in suburban Pennsylvania, Good Grief is a memory play about Nkechi (Anyanwu), a first-generation Nigerian-American med student who's having difficulty processing the sudden death of her lifelong best friend/almost boyfriend. Mimicking the unreliable nature of recollection, the show jumps around in time and features madcap flashbacks that suddenly dissolve to reveal the heavy silence that afflicts the grieving. "It's not necessarily the truth of how it happened, but it's very much how it felt," Anyanwu says, acknowledging the work's semi-autobiographical origins. "It's disheveled memory, and how that affects your grief."
The impetus to write Good Grief came to Anyanwu on the tenth anniversary of her best friend's passing. At the time, she was in her third year of the graduate acting program at the University of California San Diego, and recalling that heartbreak compelled her to write a poem, which evolved into a script. Like Nkechi, whom she has portrayed since the play's first workshop, Anyanwu is a first-generation Nigerian-American who grew up in a middle-class household in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. Unlike her analogous character, she mostly processed her grief while she was still a kid. "The super-duper first draft was me trying to replicate what happened," she says. "Then I realized I couldn't do that. Too much time had gone by."
Even though Anyanwu based Nkechi on herself, she initially didn't intend to be in the show. But the DIY nature of Good Grief's five-year development meant she kept playing the part. She collaborated with her sister to produce its first workshop at INTAR Theatre in 2014, furthered its development through the Rising Circle Collective and won the inaugural Humanitas/CTG Playwriting Prize, which led to its 2017 world premiere at L.A.'s Kirk Douglas Theatre.
Since that production, Anyanwu's star has been on the rise, both as a performer and a dramatist. She had a recurring role on the first season of HBO's The Deuce and, earlier this yu she made her Off-Broadway debut as a playwright with The Homecoming Queen at Atlantic Theater Company.
For the Vineyard's mounting of Good Grief, which is directed by Awoye Timpo, Anyanwu decided to make profound changes to the play's structure. "We kind of scattered the order because before it was completely chronological," she says. "By taking away the format of following this friendship from beginning to end, we've expanded upon a godlike element." So the most painful moments in the show don’t play out the way they actually happened, but how Anyanwu wishes they had, with unspoken words that still haunt her.
That complicated yet authentic emotional journey is what makes her characters so relatable -- for audiences of all backgrounds. "I hope that people of color go, 'Right. That's my story too,'" she says. "We don't always have to talk about slavery or gun violence."
To read about a student's experience at Good Grief, check out this post on TDF's sister site SEEN.
A dancer and playwright, Juan Michael Porter II has contributed articles to Ballet Review, The Dance Enthusiast, Time Out New York, Broadway World and HuffPost. Follow him at @juanmichaelii. Follow TDF at @ TDFNYC.
Top image: Ngozi Anyanwu and Ian Quinlan in Goof Grief. Photos by Carol Rosegg.