Good Grief is the first play that Ngozi Anyanwu has written, after graduating from the MFA acting program at UCSD. According to her, this is a vaguely autobiographical story of how she dealt with the grief of a close (very close) friend's passing, combined with elements of folklore and magical realism. For those of your that have read my pieces before, I know what you're thinking, Isabella is not big on magical realism. Luckily there isn't too, too much. But based on the title, I was really banking on some type of Charlie Brown reference somewhere in there.
But this play isn't about Charlie Brown. It's about Nkechi, the academic, strong-willed, virgin daughter of two ambitious Nigerian Igbo refugees. The story revolves around her coping with the passing of her best friend MJ. Nkechi is a tough cookie. She can be harsh with the people she holds closest, defensive in the confines of her suburban lifestyle and not all too open about any pain she may be harboring within, ever. She uses the people in her environment and flashbacks to her time with MJ to tell her story, of how she kind of gets through loosing someone she might have been on the cusp of love with, someone she might have been almost ready to be completely open and honest with, in a way that she has never let anyone in before.
After the play, I walked next door at City Tavern with two theatre-literate friends of mine. I'm glad we continued our journey over drinks because this ended up being an important step in my processing this play.
So, I didn't love it. My biggest issue was a personal one; I was having trouble loving the protagonist, Nkechi. During the performance, I had written down:
-She's kind of a mean character.
-I want her to soften. I want to love her. I also want her to stop negating.
Maybe I was supposed to be feeling that way. But I didn't really like that feeling.
"Not so much softening," my friend Lex shared, "I feel like 'vulnerability' is more the word I'm looking for. What I was craving."
We continued to discuss how the character certainly had attributes we could relate to. We had all at some point been jerks to men we were attracted to. We had also acted impulsively towards our parents, siblings, classmates, ok, everyone. But there was a lot of negativity and suppression going on. Celia commented that she loved the moment when Nkechi finally broke down, crying on her mother's lap. That was the release of emotion she had been craving. However, she also felt that that moment, among a number of others, were far too short. She craved sitting and living in those moments for longer.
I'm not in love with this play. But based on multiple community discussions I've been a part of throughout previews, I can see that it is moving a lot of people in different ways. We encounter many different people informing Nkechi's journey though grief; any audience member can choose one to latch on to. There are mentions of suicide, death within the family and relationships that have a way of dying on their own. So yes, there is a lot to relate to, but I want more.
On a design level, I feel like the play is trying to imitate the style of downtown theatre you would find in lower Manhattan: purposefully, effectively executed in a risky way that uses limited resources. But this is a big organization, with a big budget. Even though the constructs of the house outlines and moving levels of the stage are "simple," they are polished, maybe too polished. (Sorry if I'm being a jerk, props to the designers, it just wasn't connecting effectively for me.) Also but, the traditional audience at the Kirk Douglas Theatre expects this type of production quality and probably doesn't know any better. So this was a safe way for Center Theatre Group to introduce them to this downtown theatre style.
MJ: If you could be anything in the world, what would you be?
NKECHI: I don't know. Happy I guess?
Considering that the play explores the severe concept of death, I feel guilty and unqualified to make this comparison, but the moment I connected to most was Nkechi's soliloquy. She's talking out loud about how "I don't want to forget you, but I want to forget you. I don't want you to fade, but I want you to fade. I want to like ERASE you." This is the part that made me almost cry because although he is not dead, there is someone that is dead from my life that makes this moment resonate on a personal level. I don't want to let go, but I know that I have to, in order to be productive and move on with my life. In a way it was good to get this release from the character, to get this honesty from her in private. But because it was in private, emotionally I was personally (and this is personal) unsatisfied because I wanted her to share that release with all the characters around her that she had treated harshly. So, on an offshoot of my typical what does this play make me want to change about myself question, this time I will just say this play caused me to analyze my feelings about this person. To not only give in, to be ok with the vulnerability I was strong enough to offer him, but to be ok with moving on, and not beat myself up about either parts of that process. My pride gets in the way of this, and it's very difficult. Giving myself grief over it is not effective or healthy.
Good Grief runs at the Kirk Douglas Theatre through March 26th. If you're looking for an off-beat dark comedy(ish) put up by a high-budget company, on the west side to discuss over a flight of beer next door, this might be a fun one for you.