by DARLENE DONLOE
Ngozi Anyanwu has a strong constitution, and attributes a lot of her grit to her upbringing.
“In Nigerian culture you’re expected to be successful,” she tells me, sitting backstage in the Kirk Douglas dressing room. “For the first generation African, success is a big deal. Education is a big deal. You have to have something for your parents to brag about. It’s a Nigerian rite of passage. A lot of my worth is caught up in what my parents think. There was no alternative. I had to be successful.”
Her audacity came to fruition on Sunday, March 5, when her first play, Good Grief, made its world premiere at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City. Good Grief, directed by Patricia McGregor (The Mountaintop, Spunk, Blues For Mr. Charlie), is a coming-of-age story about a first-generation Nigerian girl named Nkechi who, when faced with a personal tragedy, is forced to reassess the course of her life.
Anyanwu, an LA-based (though often bi-coastal) performer and current artist-in-residence at Lincoln Center, says the story is semi-autobiographical; at age 21, she lost a childhood friend.
“It’s the first time that something made me become an adult. When I look back on that time and how pivotal it is to my life and adulthood and relationships with men and with my friends – it’s interesting. If that time hadn’t happened, I don’t know that I’d be on the journey I am. To be young and lose your first person can be traumatic. What am I supposed to do now? What kind of adult am I supposed to be? There are all these big questions to consider.”
Anyanwu admits that occasionally, her strong, I-got-it-together demeanor belies her internal composition. There are moments, she says, when there is a crack in her armor.
“This play is about a girl trying to find herself,” says Anyanwu, who has already written her second and third tomes. “I wasn’t that cool in my 20s. Nkechi is self-assured. I wrote a fantasy version of myself. Nkechi is learning and growing in an hour and a half. Mine is taking a lifetime. I like the fact that she is aware and moves through the world without anyone trying to stop her. They can try, but she won’t be stopped.”
And neither will Anyanwu. Now 34 years old, she won first place for the inaugural Humanitas/Center Theatre Group (CTG) Playwriting Prize, which recognizes new, unproduced plays written by a Southern California–based writer. The award comes with a $5,000 cash prize. The play was developed by CTG’s literary staff and presented in staged readings last month (February 12-14) at the Humanitas Play Fest in Los Angeles.
Anyanwu, who admittedly “cried like a little child” when she found out she won, began writing Good Grief when she was a student in University of California San Diego’s MFA acting program. It was the 10-year anniversary of her friend’s passing.
“I hadn’t realized how it was still in me,” she explains. “Something was just knocking at me. I was going through a current heartbreak and third year school stress. I had 30 pages when I showed it to friends. By the end of the year, I had a play. I had a first draft of something. Writing it helped me to get away from my then current situation.”
She called it Good Grief as a kind of nod to the beloved cartoon character, Charlie Brown, and his popular catchphrase.
“Good Grief is about losing people and how you need to go through that,” explains Anyanwu, who is currently the co-artistic director of the NOW Africa Playwrights Festival. “It’s not a bad thing to go through it and be sad. There is nothing wrong with being a complete mess. It’s good. It’s okay to tell people ‘I’ll put it together when I feel like putting it back together… and then I’ll fall apart again.’ And so what?”
Casually dressed in blue jean leggings, gold and turquoise earrings, burnt orange/suede pumps, and a crown of regal braids atop her head, Anyanwu’s mouth and hands are going in rapid fire succession as she explains how a veteran actress finds herself facing her first theatrical opening night as a playwright.
“I wouldn’t have imagined that my play would be where it is today,” says Anyanwu, who can be seen later this year in HBO’s new show, The Deuce. “I’m an actor. This is my first play. Best case scenario was that I would just self-produce. This is surreal. I take a picture of this theater everyday because I can’t believe it.”
Writing and now performing in Good Grief has also produced “random days of sadness” for Anyanwu.
“I’m doing this show eight days a week. It brings it all back, every day. And I know I’m not the only person to lose a human being. It feels good to bring this person back and to remember that time. It was a joyful time.”
Anyanwu, a recipient of the Djerassi Artist Residency, says she didn’t write Good Grief for an audience, but as a way of dealing and healing with personal episodes that had a direct effect on her growth and development.
“I love my play,” says Anyanwu. “I don’t give a fuck if anyone else likes it. I wrote about people I love and miss and people I loved at their best moments.”
As a greenhorn playwright, Anyanwu is stoked to watch her words come out of other actor’s mouths. But as a performer, she has had to learn to surrender.
“The playwright in me has to relinquish control,” says Anyanwu. “That’s not easy. But I have a great director in Patricia [McGregor]. If I didn’t trust her there would be a problem. I think she is brilliant.”
Though while surrendering, Anyanwu says she has learned a something about herself every day.
“I’m chill as fuck… or so I thought. And then I realize I’m a control freak,” she offers. “I’m not as chill as I appear to be. I’m nervous. I’m still confused by how nervous I get. I keep telling myself, ‘Bitch, this is your job.’ Just before I go onstage, I stay completely still and try to dig my heels and toes into the ground. ‘There are people here for this.’ While all of this is going on it’s crazy, but I have to remind myself to ‘Breathe, Bitch, breathe.’”
Nkechi was a good Nigerian girl. She did everything right. Went to med school. Made plans. Then life happened. And plans changed. A first-generation coming-of-age journey of love, loss, and growing into adulthood, Good Grief follows Nkechi as she navigates Pennsylvania’s suburbs alongside her childhood crush, her would-be-philosopher brother, and her immigrant parents.