‘Good Grief’ Theater Review: Ngozi Anyanwu Looks Back With Love and Hip-Hop

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The promising playwright Ngozi Anyanwu, who made a striking New York debut earlier this year with “The Homecoming Queen,” returns to Off Broadway’s Vineyard Theatre with a memory play called “Good Grief” whose specificity is both its strength and one of its weaknesses.

Anyanwu also stars in the production as Nkechi, the daughter of Nigerian immigrants raised in suburban Bucks County, Pennsylvania, in the late ’90s, as she comes to terms with the sudden death of her childhood friend and young adulthood almost-lover in a car accident.

As played with easy-going charisma by Ian Quinlan, MJ is a light-skinned James Dean type who’s smart but unambitious, a smooth cat compared to the more academically driven Nkechi with her more rough-around-the-edges feline energy.

In a series of nonlinear scenes that span more than a decade, Nkechi tries to overcome her crippling period of mourning for MJ in conversations with various people in her life: her football-loving father (Oberon K.A. Adjepong), her psychiatric-nurse mother (Patrice Johnson Chevannes), her blunt-smoking, malt-liquor-drinking brother (Nnamdi Asomugha) and her high school crush (Hunter Parrish).

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Each is uncomprehending of just how stuck Nkechi seems to be over MJ’s death — or why she’s dropped out of medical school and holed up at her parents’ home, seemingly incapable of moving on with her life.

The play doesn’t shed much light on this question — nor does it gather much in the way of narrative momentum over the course of its 100-minute running time. And occasional efforts to elevate the material to the mythic seem like too big a stretch for what amounts to a slight, if well-observed story of loss.

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But there is much to admire here, particularly in Anyanwu’s gift for dialogue and for depicting the experience of a second-generation African American growing up in lily-white suburbia when Tupac and Biggie were just as popular as The Incredible Hulk and “The Goonies.” (The snippets of hip-hop classics played on boomboxes, of course, add just the right touch.)

And both as actress and playwright, Anyanwu also has a gift for breaking the fourth wall to reshape her memories — sometimes following reimagined scenes with shorter takes of what “really” happened. Indeed, some lines are repeated verbatim by different characters in subsequent scenes, to further challenge our grip on what might be true.

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‘Modern Family’: Which Character Was Killed Off?

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(Spoiler warning: This post contains spoilers for Wednesday’s episode of “Modern Family,” titled “Good Grief.”)

“Modern Family” finally revealed which character had been killed off the ABC sitcom in Wednesday’s episode “Good Grief.”

The Pritchett-Dunphy-Tucker clan learns at the top of the Halloween-themed episode that Claire and Mitchell’s mother Dede (Shelley Long) — Jay’s ex-wife — had passed away. The rest of the episode is dedicated to her family processing her death in different ways, all while dressed in a variety of costumes unconducive to mourning.

Claire and Mitchell try to drown their sorrows in alcohol and grapple with their complicated relationship to their mother, while Phil and Cam struggle to deal with their emotionally fragile spouses. Jay takes a different approach, repressing his feelings to the point of going on the hunt for a missing sandwich.

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As for the kids, Haley binges on Halloween candy, Luke makes crass jokes and Alex learns she may have a slightly inappropriate — as Haley’s suddenly nourished brain notes — “psycho-spiritual response” to grief.

Elsewhere, Gloria is trapped in her own horror C-plot, running around the house in a Marilyn Monroe costume fearing that Dede has returned to haunt her from the afterlife.

Series co-creator Christopher Lloyd hinted at the death earlier this season, telling Entertainment Weekly that the sitcom would be looking to portray “bigger life events” in Season 10 and beyond.

Also Read: ‘Modern Family’: A ‘Significant Character Will Die This Season, Co-Creator Says

“We do deal with a death, which is certainly a topic that families have to deal with, and on television, it’s not easy to do because that’s a heavy subject. But at the same time, it would seem unusual for a family not to go through it,” Lloyd said at the time.

“From our standpoint creatively we’ve gotten excited writing this season and changing the lives of the characters — some in a significant way — and it’s made us think, ‘Wow, there’s a lot to explore in the lives of these characters,’” he said.

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