The story goes that when Bertolt Brecht* was very old, and too ill to accompany his company on their tour to London, he gave his actors only two words of direction before they left: Play lightly. Ngozi Anyanwu’s play Good Grief, nimbly directed by Awoye Timpo at the Vineyard Theatre, takes that same wisdom to heart. Its story — about a young woman grieving the death of her longtime best friend, who might also have been the love of her life — is a heavy one, and could easily have gotten sucked into the whirlpools of weepiness. But Anyanwu and Timpo give it lift and breath. They make the play into a prism where, like light beams, we bounce between facets of memory and present circumstance — things that really happened and that never happened, or that happened somehow, but perhaps not exactly as they’ve been reconstructed and mythologized within our heroine’s mind. Playing that heroine, Nkechi, is Anyanwu herself, and though the entire play is an act of mourning, she hardly ever cries. Not because Anyanwu can’t go there as a performer, but because Good Grief is interested in something else. With theatrical agility and emotional intelligence, it’s exploring not what grief actually looks like but what it feels like from the inside, the weird internal labyrinth that we’re forced to navigate in the wake of a great loss.
Nkechi’s story takes place in Bensalem, Pennsylvania, where she was raised by parents who immigrated from Nigeria “to raise [their] kids … to become doctors, lawyers, and nurses”; Nkechi herself is taking a break from her “six-year fast-track pre-med program” at Drexel when her friend-since-childhood, M.J. (Ian Quinlan), is killed in a car crash. But Jason Ardizzone-West’s scenic design doesn’t give us the suburbs of Bucks County. Instead, the set is a kind of mind palace, where sliding panels that create the simple shape of a house, as a child might draw one, move back and forth in a split-level space of platforms and stairs. “It is always night,” Anyanwu writes in her stage directions, and in the play’s opening sequence, the company stands behind the panels, which resemble oversize pegboard, and shine flashlights through their holes like blinking stars. Whenever M.J. and Nkechi’s intimacy crosses from fierce friendship into something different, long fluorescent tubes that lighting designer Oona Curley has built into the set pulse and glimmer, and something like a far-off bell shimmers in Daniel Kluger’s sound design. Timpo and her team have created a living space, in which neurons fire and boundaries shift and memories coalesce and disperse like smoke. It’s Nkechi’s psyche that we’re inside of, but Anyanwu is smart in that she doesn’t give the character a maestro’s control. Sometimes Nkechi is able to edit what we’re seeing — “I’m sorry … I just,” she stammers in trying to recall M.J.’s funeral, “I wanna get this part right. It was actually more like this …” — but not always. Grief has trapped her in her own head, like a dreamer who might sometimes attain lucidity but is powerless to wake up.
The blow of M.J.’s death has knocked Nkechi both out of and into herself, and its impact is all the more shattering because Nkechi doesn’t fully know who that self is. She’s barely started college, she’s never had sex (though she and M.J. were getting close), and while she doesn’t have the words yet for what she wants to be, it’s probably not a doctor. “I’m still a good girl, Dad. I mean, woman. I’m just taking a little more time off,” she says to her father (Oberon K.A. Adjepong), who loves his daughter and can’t understand her hesitation about school or the depths of her despair for her friend. “Crying ova who?” he reprimands her as they sit in the car together, Nkechi making a late-bloomer attempt at learning to drive. “Was he your huzban? Carrying on like it was YOU who lost your life. What did you lose? NOTING. You have life. You have breath. You have a mothah and fathah. You have evryting … You need to move … You can’t just stop. Move, ehn? Who are you to cry?”
Like so many loving, anxious parents before him and so many to come, Nkechi’s Papa pushes a little too hard, prescribing activity to cure paralysis — a reasonable cure for an ailment that exists beyond reason. Adjepong is wonderful in the part, clucking and knitting his brow and holding forth with the kind of declamatory grumbling that can only come from a mixture of affection and suppressed fear. In one striking scene, he and NeNe (Nkechi’s mother, given twinkle-eyed tenacity by Patrice Johnson Chevannes) sit together in bed, listening to their daughter weep in her room. Anyanwu simply walks back and forth on the set’s upper level, her eyes dry and her expression intense and thoughtful, but the soft, blurry echoes of awful, continuous crying come to us through the sound system. “It hurts me to hear her in pain,” admits Papa, but he and NeNe don’t focus solely on their daughter. Their scene is intimate, personal, playful: “Spoon me!” Nene insists, “It’s nice! It’s what couples do now.” When Papa’s indignant confusion finally gives way, he agrees, but he wants to be little spoon.
It’s the juxtaposition in scenes like this — death in one room, life, in all its silly sweetness, in another — that gives Anyanwu’s play its punch. By turning the focus away from Nkechi to her parents, and by disembodying her tears, Anyanwu and Timpo create a delicate layering effect: light and dark, excruciating closeness and measured distance side by side. Nkechi’s journey through the underworld isn’t a solemn funeral march but a mix of tones and tempos. There’s the hesitant, health-conscious two-step with her mother, a nurse and a psychology student, as well as a devout Christian who’d like for her daughter to pray, or at least to share her thoughts and feelings aloud. There’s the awkward, nostalgic shimmy of reintroduction with her old high-school crush, “Homecoming King Jimmy Deering” (Hunter Parrish), an older boy that she once asked M.J. to help her “practice for” by teaching her to kiss. And there’s the big, brassy hip-hop throwdown with her brother, known simply as Bro (the excellent Nnamdi Asomugha), whose prescriptions for his sister include weed, malt-liquor 40s, and blasting Bone Thugs-N-Harmony on an old-school boombox. Asomugha and Anyanwu are hilarious together, fully settled into the smack-and-smack-back patter of siblings: “Why do you talk like that?” Nkechi needles her swaggering brother, “Like a character on The Wire … We live in Bucks County, homie.” “You worried about the way I talk?” he ribs her in return, “On yo … Melissa Joan Hart, Clarissa Explains It All, Alex Mac, Are You Afraid of the Dark–type shit. You ain’t white, you know that right? … Bitch, you know we got the same education.” And Nkechi scores the point: “Oh, I know ‘cause you got some of that shit twice.”
Anyanwu’s dialogue is released and sprightly, yet it’s clear that she and Asomugha are jousting at the edge of a cliff. He’s trying to keep her from going over, unaware that she already has — that, like anyone in mourning, she’s with him and not with him, both down at the bottom of the abyss and up above, looking at herself down below. Grief splits us, and as Bro sits with his divided sister, he ends up being the one to break down. Nkechi holds him, her eyes still dry, her face faraway, until he shakes it off: “Shit. My bad … This weed is mad strong.” Like much of Good Grief, the moment is emotionally astute and genuinely funny (truly, my least favorite thing about the show is the title, which feels thinner and easier than the play’s content). Anyanwu understands that humor in a story functions like lemon juice or salt — it heightens the flavors around it and adds a sting.
The first time Nkechi tries to recall the night she found out about M.J.’s accident, her imagination takes the wheel, and the moment is manifested as a WWE brawl, with “The Nigerian Nightmare” (Nkechi, discombobulated and stripped to her sports bra) in “the corner of Denial” and “The Neighbor’s Mom” in “the corner of Truth.” Lisa Ramirez plays both this unlucky stranger — “I don’t know this woman,” says Nkechi, “And yet I’ll come to remember her as the woman who broke my heart” — and M.J.’s mom, whom Nkechi encounters at her friend’s funeral. As the grieving mother, Ramirez rockets between cold irony and uncontrollable sorrow until Anyanwu manages to bring the scene to a halt and show us something more like what really happened — which is simply silence. Many, many moments of it, before Nkechi ventures a quiet, “It was a really nice service.”
Good Grief is a story of mourning, and it’s also a coming-of-age story — because for Nkechi, the process of grieving M.J. actually means starting to unknit his identity from her own. It means figuring out who she is, and who she might be, alone, at the very moment that she had committed herself to being one-half of a whole. Not only is it a painful task; it feels like a traitorous one, since M.J., a slacker-dreamer type who didn’t live long enough to find a form for his aspirations, has in fact demanded of his friend that she remember him. “You won’t let me disappear, right?” he begs Nkechi, after telling her about his first encounter with his father, a man who’s never been a part of his life and, even now that M.J.’s found him in adulthood, doesn’t want to be. M.J. seems smooth, confident, even slick, but he’s terrified of leaving no mark on the world, and so, like Hamlet with Horatio, he’s tasked his friend with making him immortal. Quinlan gives M.J. a diffuse kind of charisma — it seems even in life he had a fleeting presence, always a little bit somewhere else — and as his ghost floats in and out of Nkechi’s consciousness, the painful paradox comes clear: Her act of commemoration for her friend will also have to be an act of exorcism.
In its final moments, a play that has taken place entirely at night is filled with light. The company, dressed ceremonially in white by costume designer Andy Jean, takes on the shapes of old gods: Zeus and his Olympians observing the mourning of Artemis, the goddess of the hunt who lost her dearest companion, the archer Orion (“You know they got that shit from Africa, right?” Nkechi and her brother quip simultaneously). The myth emerges out of a last remembered phone conversation between M.J. and Nkechi, the kind that takes place at 4 a.m., the kind that’s filled with warm silences, that’s less about talking than it is about keeping the other person on the line, about not hanging up yet. But Nkechi has to hang up, even as Artemis must finally cease cursing the heavens and place the shape of her beloved friend up among the stars. A rite of passage, Nkechi learns, must involve some forgetting. A memory play is no place to live.
Good Grief is at the Vineyard Theatre through November 18.
*Note: The attribution of this quote has been corrected.