Review: Thrilling Talent In ‘The Homecoming Queen’ & Michael Weller’s Coney Island Carousel Spin In ‘Jericho’

Ahron R. Foster

It’s all well and good to have great seats for Bruce Springsteen and assured seats for Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and Denzel Washington’s Hickey. It’s a privilege, to be sure. Still, I believe most of my colleagues would agree that what really revs our motors is the all-too-rare discovery of a new talent. That’s the case with Ngozi Anyanwu’s The Homecoming Queen, which is having its world premiere at the Atlantic Theatre Company’s smaller space in New York’s Chelsea. This tale of a prodigal child returning home to confront Daddy issues has that ineffable aura of alignment – insightful writing, deft staging, an irresistibly appealing cast – that transforms the comfortably familiar into an occasion for engagement and reflection. And a cause for celebration.

The setting is a family compound in rural Nigeria. Kelechi (the spectacular Mfoniso Udofia) has returned from the U.S. to attend her dying father (Oberon K.A. Adjepong) after 15 years, during which she has become a celebrated, almost-Pulitzer Prize-winning New York novelist. She’s met first by a gaggle of women who tug at her togs, try to open her luggage looking for gifts. Kelechi is a snot, reeking of Manhattan airs, exuding disdain and dropping F-bombs as she approaches her father’s now grand home, knocking and getting no response.

“You are home,” one of the women says. “The door is open. It is always open!”

Entering the house, she brushes past Beatrice (Mirirai Sithole, perfection), a servant girl whom Papa describes as her cousin. Kelechi’s banter with her father suggests deep fissures that soon will be revealed, along with the love that resurfaces as the extent of his illness grows clearer. The situation grows more textured with the arrival of Obina (Segun Akande), a childhood pal now grown tall and handsome and, like Kelechi, an expat – in his case as a Lagos-based financier with the World Bank.

Ahron R. Foster

Anyanwu intersperses the action with flashbacks to Kelechi’s childhood that establish not only the origins of these relationships but, more movingly, the reasons for what has come after. In a very small space, evocatively designed (by Yu-Hsuan Chen) and lit (by Oona Curley), Awoye Timpo has staged Homecoming Queen as a folk tale with a decidedly non-folksy edge (and no small contribution from movement director Hope Boykin). The shifting time frames take some getting used to, but the focus on Kelechi – and Udofia’s riveting, subtle transformation from aloof interloper to reclaimed villager open to forgiveness and revelation – are exhilarating to watch.

The story unfolds with the funny, cheerful urging of a chorus of women, young and old, played by Ebbe Bassey, Patrice Johnson, Zenzi Williams and the incomparable stage veteran Vinie Burrows, all gorgeously dressed by Ntokozo Fuzunina Kunene.

Udofia is herself an accomplished playwright whose Sojourners and Her Portmanteau have added to a growing body of new work by women that also includes Sarah Delappe’s The Wolves and Jocelyn Bioh’s School Girls, or The African Mean Girls Play. The Homecoming Queen is rich and deep, a show to treasure. It should be moved to a bigger space and given a chance to breathe.

At a handkerchief-size space in Alphabet City called the Wild Project, Michael Weller and the Attic Theater Company have dusted off  the Hungarian playwright Ferenc Molnar’s 1909 play Liliom, best known today as the source of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s sophomore effort, Carousel.

The play was set in a Budapest amusement park and concerns the fraught love of a girl who is at once innocent and headstrong and a carny barker, the rough-hewn man-boy she fatefully falls in love with. R&H moved the action to a seaside mill town in Maine (the show is being readied for a Broadway revival this spring). Jericho is Weller’s name for Liliom (Billy Bigelow in the musical version) which now is set in Coney Island during the Great Depression. The production is as barebones as can be, and staged by Laura Braza, who’s also the Attic’s artistic director.

Hannah Sloat and Vasile Flutur Dustin Moore

Jericho is not a lovable play, and yet I found it unaccountably moving – in no small measure because it’s of a piece with Weller’s stage work (he is of course also known as the Oscar-nominated screenwriter for Milos Forman’s film adaptations of Hair and Ragtime.)

I once wrote of him:

Since 1971, when Moonchildren had its premiere at the Royal Court Theater in London under the title Cancer, Michael Weller has written with a discerning eye and a journalist’s detachment about a generation that came of age during the Vietnam War and found its identity in The Big Chill. Yet as he concludes his second decade as playwright and screenwriter, Mr. Weller has also shown that his keen vision surveys the personal, not the generic, and that what he maps out, after all, is the landscape of his own heart.

The landscape of Weller’s heart is a deeply rutted place indeed. His dramas have been about mismatched imperfect lovers and spouses and the pain their imperfections wreak on themselves and others in the wreckage that follows the initial fireworks of passion. In that context, Liliom makes sense. Julie loves Jericho knowing he will abuse and betray her; it’s an act of defiance that’s inexplicable except within the landscape of a heart determined to travel the unpaved route over the highway.

The first act of Jericho is defeated by the small space and Braza’s graceless deployment of her company, and it’s not helped by the amateur device of a narrator, Ruhl (Jerzy Gwiazdowski), who does magic tricks in our faces and rather heavy-handedly sets the scene. Much of what follows is familiar: Julie (an affecting Hannah Sloat) and her skittish friend Mary (a slightly overeager Ginna M. Doyle) are thrown off the ride by the jealous owner, Mrs. Mosca (Stephanie Pope), only to have Jericho himself (Vasile Flutur, a gamey cock o’ the walk) intercede.

Soon Julie and Jericho are living together in dysfunctional bliss (R&H’s song for Julie, “What’s the Use of Wondrin'” is still one of the most potent evocations of sexual love in the Broadway catalogue). Julie tells Jericho she’s pregnant. Jericho and his pal Tynk (Jack Sochet) plan a robbery there’s not a second’s doubt will be a botch.

And something almost miraculous happens when we return from the intermission. The cluttered stage has been cleared for the boardwalk setting of the robbery. The awkward pacing of the first act gives way to a beautifully choreographed death scene the actors can really sink their teeth into. The emotional power builds during Jericho’s courtroom appearance in Purgatory, and even more so when he returns to Earth 16 years later in an effort to redeem himself.

Hannah Sloat, Vasile Flutur Dustin Moore

Neither R&H nor Weller address Molnar’s ambivalence about being Jewish, a theme that pops up regularly – and not prettily – in Liliom. Still, Weller, to his credit, keeps his eye on the wreckage. Molnar’s fantasy about abuse was a uniquely male one: In the closing lines of Liliom, Julie tells her confused daughter that love protects you from feeling pain when you’re being beaten. Oscar Hammerstein sold that bill of goods even harder, which has made Carousel revivals kinda, well, complicated. And what, after all, could be timelier? Weller addresses this with a coda delivered by Ruhl who, like Prospero, has renounced his magic. Summoning Julie’s words, he says:

“So touching. And also, in a certain way, reassuring, don’t you think? That we’ve come so far since these dark times. That we finally recognize when people are hurting us, and so we avoid them. Imagine if we still put our trust in those who cause us pain. I think it could make us very angry. And violent. Even a little insane. Thank God it doesn’t happen today. I think we should feel pretty good about that. I do.

That’s pretty great.

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