In The Homecoming Queen (Atlantic Theater Company), directed by Awoye Timpo, the playwright and actress Ngozi Anyanwu presents the story of a modern Igbo woman who split for America at the age of fifteen and, fifteen years later, returns, with old scars and new rules. A bestselling novelist planning her next book, Kelechi (played by Mfoniso Udofia) takes a hiatus from Los Angeles to visit her childhood home of Nigeria and care for her ailing, widowed father, a part to which Oberon K.A. Adjepong lends a benign but sometimes stinging sternness. Kelechi considers herself an American, and, though she longs for a sense of familiarity in the motherland, for her, even Lekki, Nigeria, doesn’t measure up to Beverly Hills.
Upon touching down in her old village, Kelechi is greeted by a chorus of women eager to prepare her for a homecoming. Kelechi may argue with her literary agent about the specter of impending deadlines via bluetooth headset while fetching water in her village’s well, but her relatives make the agent’s bickering seem like child’s play, using every instance of catching up and reminiscing to remind Kelechi of her outsize success. They are a prideful bunch, and Kelechi’s impressive feats only manage to bring that quality out in them all the more. As her father puts it: “Modesty does not become of the Igbo woman.”
Udofia plays Kelechi with a subtle quirkiness that, initially, seems like it could belong to any classic romantic-comedy heroine. But as the layers of the story gradually reveal themselves — including the mystery of what pushed Kelechi away from Nigeria for over a decade — so, too, does Udofia augment the character with additional, complex shadings. Soon, Kelechi will be burying her father, leading to an emptier house and a newly emotionally raw family inquiring after her failed relationship with a white American man named Graham, whom her relatives mistakenly refer to as “Mr. Cracker.”
Such questions (including the obligatory follow-up, about when Kelechi will wed) spur in her a cold chilliness that extends to Beatrice, the fifteen-year-old “cousin” whom she dismisses as “the house girl.” “Bia!” Kelechi shouts to her — a command meaning “come” in the language of the Igbo, one of Nigeria’s largest ethnic groups. Wispy but strong, Beatrice — played by Mirirai Sithole, whose calm charisma was also on display in the recent School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play — comes forward at every turn with serious and smart-witted ripostes, but even her determination cannot dim Kelechi’s coldness. When Beatrice answers to the madame of the house’s call, declaring, “Yes, Kelechi!” she is swiftly shot down: “Mchewwww. That’s ‘Nda Kelechi’ to you,” Kelechi retorts, emphasizing the Igbo greeting used as a mark of respect.
A common Igbo name, “Kelechi” means “thank God,” and signifies a child that shall bring blessings, success, and happiness to its parents. Though her career as a writer strays from the typical doctor-lawyer-engineer path favored by Nigerian parents, Kelechi has proven herself to be a literary success, and, in doing so, lived up to the expectations of her name. She has earned enough financial clout to renovate her family’s entire compound, all the while providing for everyone in it. Still, her father frequently keeps her in check, whether through concerns about her forthright disposition — warning, “You’re too strong,” and urging her not to “look like a man” — or demanded recitations of his five pillars of success: “Commitment. Dedication. Knowledge. Perseverance. Common sense.”
The stern father is not the only important male figure Kelechi reunites with upon coming home: There’s also Obina (played with sentient strength by Segun Akande), who, like Beatrice, embodies the cultural practice, common among Africans, of families hiring kids either from the street or from neighboring compounds to perform “house help.” These boys and girls cook, clean, and babysit, usually in exchange for residence, money, or schooling. In his position as the family’s trusted help, Obina — just a boy when Kelechi’s father took him in and offered to pay for his education — grew close to Kelechi, even becoming her best friend.
In The Homecoming Queen, this shared history and intimacy roars back to life, with Kelechi criticizing Obina for abandoning his dream of being a teacher and instead becoming enmeshed in Nigeria’s cancerous, corrupt establishment. Trained in London, Obina works as a banker, and his business calls — in which he trades his subdued Naija accent for a shaky British one — perturb Kelechi. He counters her critiques, arguing that he’s putting money back into the community and helping rebuild local compounds, but Kelechi still feels a sense of betrayal: How could her closest childhood friend — the one who witnessed firsthand the moment that would change her life forever — lend a helping hand to, in her words, “the enemy”?
After leaving for America, Kelechi tried to bury this past: her relationship with Obina; the ceremonial traditions of Nigeria; the very language of her family (she nearly forgot how to speak Igbo). Instead, she consumed herself with getting things done: writing books, paying bills, giving orders, thwarting off panic attacks. Kelechi’s callousness and disdain here toward Obina, Beatrice, her father, even her mother country can, at first, seem without reason, but it’s clear, by play’s end, that something, or someone, has scarred Kelechi, and that she has spent her entire life reckoning with the repercussions. In one scene, the lights dim down to a deep blue, and Kelechi speaks out broken reenactments of memories indelibly marked in her mind. She has tried to live according to her father’s maxim — “Tomorrow is for forgiving the bad things of today” — but to her, it seems futile; she opts to forget, not forgive. But her attempts at suppressing flashbacks, along with her stash of prescription pills, prove no panacea to her old wounds.
While her father, with his optimism, glosses over the reality of Kelechi’s past, Obina acknowledges the hurt. (His name could well be a variation on the Igbo name “Obinna,” meaning “father’s heart” — he has the compassion Kelechi’s father lacks.) “Can I touch you?” he asks at one point, and what seems like a lifetime passes, Kelechi standing still in harrowing indecision before her body recognizes his touch as a vulnerable bid and not a bearer of more pain. She answers in the affirmative, but this isn’t some treacly tale of a “broken” woman’s life becoming whole once the right man steps into it. Anyanwu’s interest isn’t in unrealistic narrative arcs but in the smaller, more internal things in life: secrets, desires, fears, aspirations. This is the story of an African woman not simply surviving, not just overcoming — but doing the hard, messy work of living itself.