Where to begin when trying to remember something you don’t want to think about? Is it best to start at the beginning or to reconstruct the memory in fragments that avoid the stuff you especially want to forget? And even then, do we construct the bits we’re fond of with the same amount of accuracy that we do the memories we avoid? The elusiveness of the act of remembering, especially as it relates to grief, is at the core of Ngozi Anyanwu’s play Good Grief, now running at the Vineyard Theatre.
The play opens in a sea of stars. It is here we discover Nkechi, played by the playwright herself, floating in a mythic universe. Nkechi begins to tell us the story of her relationship with her best friend and the love of her life, MJ (Ian Quinlan), who we quickly learn is the victim of a car accident and is dying. We hop back and forth in time between 1992 and 2005, a patchwork of scenes that sketches out the couple’s life together – from their first meeting in kindergarten to their first kiss in high school to her final visit with him in the hospital. MJ means everything to Nkechi and vice versa. When she wants to drop out of her fast track pre-med program, MJ supports her decision all the way. When she’s not sure if she’s ready to have sex for the first time, MJ is happy to wait. He is the perfect boyfriend, seemingly constructed in Nkechi’s memory from only the best days of their relationship.
Interspersed with these scenes are sketches of Nkechi’s home life with her Nigerian immigrant parents and her brother. Her parents (Oberon K.A. Adjepong and Patrice Johnson Chevannes) want the best for her, which must be why they keep bringing up how much they sacrificed for her to go to med school. The most interesting scene in the play is an extended duet with her brother where they share a 40-ounce beer, pass a joint, and just shoot the shit. The conversation jumps all over the place, from the differences in their use of language as it relates to their differing educations, to the actress who played Carmen Sandiego, to whether or not there’s a heaven and whether MJ might be there. This is the scene that felt most like home in the play, maybe the only totally accurate memory Nkechi has reconstructed for the audience.
While MJ is her first sexual experience, Nkechi’s second adds to the drama in the latter half of the play. A gorgeous guy named JD (Hunter Parrish), who Nkechi and MJ grew up with, still lives in Bucks County after most of his classmates have left. When Nkechi moves home after MJ’s death and after quitting school, she and JD run into one another, and feelings flare up. They end up in bed together and we watch Nkechi grapple with what it means to move on from her first true love.
If this sounds like a lot to take in, it is, and not because it’s difficult to follow. Awoye Timpo’s clear, if stagnant, direction makes the story mostly easy to follow, despite a lack of variance in her staging. Most of the play is staged around a small thrust at the center of Jason Ardizzone-West’s misused bi-level set. Other than that, several scenes are centrally staged on a runway spanning the stage above, with two brief scenes staged so far to one end of the platform that the actors are almost offstage. In juxtaposition with the staging, however, Timpo’s text work with the actors has resulted in 7 likeable characters and performances.
What makes Anyanwu’s play so frustrating is the amount of ground she is attempting to cover in 90 minutes. There’s a 13-year friendship that turns into love that, eventually, needs to be mourned. There’s a look at what it means to feel something adjacent to love after that first love is over. There’s being the child of immigrant parents in America today. There’s the question of whether or not there’s a heaven. On top of all of that, Anyanwu has framed the story of MJ and Nkechi’s love as running parallel to the myth of Orion and Artemis, which doesn’t quite feel organic. Since there’s so much to squeeze in to such a limited time, the audience never gets to see these ideas pushed as far as they could go in a more focused text. All that said, Good Grief does build to a very powerful and aesthetically beautiful, if unearned, final moment.
When I sat down at my desk later that night to write about the show I’d seen, I realized I couldn’t quite remember what the show was about. I remembered the story in all of its fragments, and certainly remembered the loving performances the actors gave, but what was it about? Where was this play’s impact? As it turns out, the act of remembering can be quite elusive.