The final scene of Ngozi Anyanwu’s “The Homecoming Queen” is searing in its idyllic optimism. A family is reunited across three generations and two cultures. Everyone is smiling and singing as overjoyed grandparents welcome their daughter’s young family – including a daughter of her own, having returned from America to connect with her Igbo roots in their native Nigeria. The family dances in a circle, passing along cultural heritage and dancing advice from generation to generation – a picture perfect homecoming.
But as the scene closes, it is revealed as nothing but a dream. In reality, returns and homecomings are often complicated and painful affairs, especially for expats from countries still enmeshed in the consequences of post-colonial looting and free-for-all corruption. For those of us who have chosen to build lives abroad, the concept of “home” is a much more relatable piling of trauma, healing, despair and love.
Nigerian-American Anyanwu, through the directorial lens of Awoye Timpo, explores the messy, tender nature of home through the story of Kelechi (Mfoniso Udofia) – a Pulitzer Prize-nominated author who is returning to Nigeria after a self-imposed 15-year exile in Brooklyn. She’s back because her father doesn’t have long to live, and she’s come to pay her final respects. Death is the ultimate reckoning, leaving Kelechi and her father to haltingly, and often times painfully, attempt to reconnect and reconcile in anticipation of his passing. Matters are further complicated by entanglements and conflicts with the house girl Beatrice and Kelechi’s childhood friend-turned-handsome-and-successful-world-banker, Obina (Segun Akande). In an escalating series of twists and revelations through the play’s masterfully paced hour and 45-minute run time, the audience explores the fault lines and traumas that compelled Kelechi to stay away for all these years and have come to determine her fraught relationship with her family home and all that it represents.
Tackling issues ranging from PTSD to mental illness to sexual violence, “The Homecoming Queen” is a powerful addition to an emerging canon of extremely well-received plays and scripts by African female playwrights, joining the acclaimed ranks of Jocelyn Bioh’s “School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play” and Danai Gurira’s “Eclipsed,” which starred Oscar darling Lupita Nyong’o on Broadway. “The Homecoming Queen” has garnered instant buzz with several showings, selling out the intimate Atlantic Theater Company’s Stage 2 in New York, and was named a “critic’s pick” by the New York Times, proving once again that not only are African diasporic voices and aesthetics a creative force to be reckoned with, but also that good stories can be both specific and universally resonant.
Anyanwu shared how she approaches the idea of translating the Igbo cultural specificity of Kelechi and her family dynamics to a cosmopolitan audience. “I think being specific actually makes things as universal as possible,” she said in a recent interview with AYO. “My goal was to tell this very specific story – but it’s important to realize that we may experience pain similarly. There are just some things in the world that are universal: most people can relate to having issues with a parent at some point in time; almost everyone is afraid of their parents passing…The less you try to appeal to everyone, the more you’ll find that people share the same story just with different details. The specific always speaks to the universal.”
You can catch The Homecoming Queen at The Atlantic Theater Company’s Stage 2 in New York City during its extended run through February 18th 2018.