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The Homecoming Queen

Theatre Review by David Hurst - January 22, 2018

Mfoniso Udofia and Segun Akande
Photo by Ahron R Foster

Presented last summer in a workshop by New York Stage and Film & Vassar at the Powerhouse Theater, Ngozi Anyanwu's The Homecoming Queen is now receiving its world premiere production at the Atlantic Theater Company's Stage 2. An emotionally charged play about a Nigerian woman, Kelechi, played with raw strength by Mfoniso Udofia, forced to deal with a turbulent past when she returns home for the first time in fifteen years to care for her aging father, The Homecoming Queen is a powerful exploration of a familiar story. Contrary to Thomas Wolfe, Kelechi can and does go home again, but the emotional baggage she finds waiting for her in Nigeria throws her life into chaos and is the basis for the structural conflict in Anyanwu's deeply felt play.

Without recapitulating the plot or giving away too many spoilers, The Homecoming Queen, cleanly and inventively directed by Awoye Timpo on a long runway that splits the audience into two opposing sides, focuses on Kelechi's relationships with her Papa, an excellent Oberon K.A. Adjepong, the house girl her father has engaged to care for him, Beatrice, a terrific Mirirai Sithole (recently seen in Jocelyn Bioh's School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play at MCC), and the young boy taken in by her father when they were both children who has now grown into a strapping and handsome man, Obina, played by the riveting Segun Akande. Kelechi's life and history are deeply tied to her country of birth, and she's constantly reminded of her Nigerian origins by a chorus of her Aunties beautifully—and sassily—portrayed by Ebbe Bassey (also the production's dialect coach), esteemed veteran actress Vinie Burrows, Patrice Johnson and Zenzi Williams. Timpo cleverly uses the perimeter of the house, just above the audience seating, to spotlight these women as they pester and persuade Kelechi toward the choices she must inevitably make.

Oberon KA Adjepong and Mfoniso Udofia
Photo by Ahron R Foster

There are long-buried resentments revealed in Anyanwu's story but despite its top-notch cast and vivid production, The Homecoming Queen needs the kind of polish another draft would provide. There are frequent flashbacks to when Kelechi and Obina first meet as children and, later, when as teenagers they're faced with a life-changing tragedy. These transitions, from both an acting and technical perspective, would benefit from additional attention and thought. There's a major revelation about something Kelechi does that is buried to the point where audiences could miss it. And it's important.

Despite its rough edges, The Homecoming Queen explores the tried and true theme of the prodigal child who returns home to battle the demons that drove them away in the first place. Anyanwu's fresh setting, however, distinguishes her work from the norm in its creative use of Nigeria's unique dialect, colorful costuming (by Ntokozo Fuzunina Kunene) and its distinctive music (by Amatus Karim-Ali). It's a heartfelt piece that's worth seeing, particularly for its strong cast that gives themselves over to Anyanwu's story with total commitment.

The Homecoming Queen
Through February 11
Atlantic Stage 2, 330 West 16th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: OvationTix