By Tulis McCall
“I believe every sad story begins with a celebration.” This is the opening line of the fictitious best-selling book authored by a Nigerian woman named Kalechi who inhabits the title role in The Homecoming Queen. It is modern-day Nigeria and Kalechi (Mfoniso Udofia) is coming home. And she is the Queen of Homecoming for more reasons than those that meet the eye. She was sent to America 15 years ago as a teenager. There she studied and stayed and became a best-selling author of specifically one book. Now she is home because her father’s health is failing and because she needs a retreat where she can consider whether or not she has an idea for a new book or for anything at all. Her re-entry is a little like that of a space capsule – she gets her bottom side burned. Nigeria has gone on without Kalechi and it is not about to change to suit her American manners. Water mus still be drawn from a well, but the Internet and cell phones are omni-present, and Amazon Prime delivers.
First of all it is the elder women who greet her with warm but stern affection. Her father Papa (Oberon K.A. Adjepong) welcomes her with grace and denial. He is glad she is returned to her proper home and insists that his heart is fine, fine, fine. In addition he has enough energy left over to point out to Kelechi that the renovations on the house were executed with the idea that someday the rooms would be filled with Kalechi’s family.
Of which there is not a sighting on any horizon. Or is there?
Father and daughter are old sparring partners. The love is deep but the flesh is prickly. They are two opposing tidal waves interlocked in a small bay. Also on the scene is a 15 year old girl, Beatrice (Mirirai Sithole) who is passed off as a cousin, but who we suspect is a closer relative than that. Kalechi treats here with disdain from the instant they meet. It is the way of doing things. Beatrice is a solemn being who sees everything and understands it all without comment. She is, however, a “loud thinker”. It is Beatrice who guides us throughout this story.
The final ingredient arrives in the form of Obina (Segun Akande) who was a street orphan that Papa took in just before Kelechi left for America. The reunion of the childhood friends adds a precious and tender element.
Homecoming Queen is a memory play and a mythic tale. A prodigal daughter returns and is greeted by her past. It is a home-coming and a home-embracing and a home-leaving tale. The characters are solid and vibrant including the chorus women, Ebbe Bassey, Vinie Burrows, Patrice Johnson, and Zenzi Williams. They keep watch as the tale is released to us. Despite Ms. Udofia’s unnecessary fussing when she is without intention on the stage, Kelechi’s spirit and determination make a mighty song. The layers of time and relationships stack up and lean out to grab us. Obina and Kelechi are partners in a dance that is wrapped up in strands of love, regret and possibility. This is beautiful ensemble work.
As to the story – following the path takes some doing as Anyanwu tries to be all things to all people in her narrative. The important points that unravel the mystery are often glossed over, and it took another reading of the script to get to where the author was going. Which is too bad, as it is the core of the piece. During the performance I spent a fair bit of time wondering where we were, because the logistics were sometimes murkey, and this pulled me out of the story. Not enough to leave me stranded, however. As the play concluded we are swept into another chapter. Is it a beginning or an end? Who knows? In this place and time, anything is possible.
I look forward to more of Anyanwu’s work. Hers is a voice that should be encouraged to focus, be heard and be held up to the sky. Celebration all around.
THE HOMECOMING QUEEN, written by Ngozi Anyanwu and directed by Awoye Timpo.
WITH Oberon K.A. Adjepong, Segun Akande, Ebbe Bassey, Vinie Burrows, Patrice Johnson, Mirirai Sithole, Mfoniso Udofia, and Zenzi Williams
Design by Yu-Hsuan Chen, costume design by Ntokozo Fuzunina Kunene, lighting design by Oona Curley, sound design by Amatus Karim-Ali, movement direction by Hope Boykin, music direction by Nolufefe Mtshabe, dialect by Ebbe Bassey
Atlantic Theatre Company through February 18.