Playwright and actress Ngozi Anyanwu makes peace with death in a play that’s ‘bristling with life’

By Christina Campodonico

Ngozi Anyanwu, center, draws upon her Nigerian heritage in “Good Grief”
Photo by Craig Schwartz

“What do you think it’s like before you die?” asks MJ, the male lead in the new play “Good Grief,” now making its debut run at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City.

He imagines it could feel like kissing and crapping all at once: a cathartic moment between ecstasy and sweet release.

That’s a strange thought for someone so young — twentysomething and still living at home — to contemplate. But for the play’s 34-year-old author and lead actress Ngozi Anyanwu, that’s not too early to ponder death or the mournful emotions that arise in its wake.

With “Good Grief,” Anyanwu not only stars and makes her playwriting debut, she also explores how grief takes shape in the life of her autobiographical alter ego Nkechi — a first-generation Nigerian-American med school dropout — after her best friend MJ dies in a car crash.

The premise hits close to home for Anyanwu, whose childhood friend Matthew, upon whom the play is based, also died in a traffic accident.

“He probably was the first person who made me really think about what it is that I think about deeply — the person that you call at two o’clock in the morning, when you’re super asleep, who wanted to talk to you and talk to you about big, deep stuff,” she recalls, “… and probably the first person who artistically got me.”

Around the tenth anniversary of Matthew’s death, Anyanwu channeled his memory into her writing while studying for an MFA in acting at UC San Diego.

“I think my classmates were kind of worried about me, because I spent the majority of the time sitting in the dark, in my office, writing and crying,” says Anyanwu of the creative process. “It kind of was a poem at first, and then I worked on it with classmates and it turned out to be a play at the end of year.”

That play caught the attention of Center Theatre Group after Anyanwu submitted “Good Grief” for its inaugural Humanitas / Center Theatre Group Playwriting Prize last year. She won the $5,000 prize for un-produced plays written by Southern California-based writers and the opportunity for “Good Grief” to be presented in a staged reading.

“I thought her voice was incandescent,” says Center Theatre Group Literary Manager and “Good Grief” dramaturg Joy Meads, who also sat on the Humanitas Prize’s selection committee. “The humor and that open-hearted nature of the play, it was just bristling with life.”

Anyanwu’s writing stood out so much from the pack of 234 submissions that Center Theatre Group decided to mount a full-fledged production of the play with Anyanwu as the lead.

First-time playwrights don’t normally star in their own work, but “Good
Grief” director Patricia McGregor says Anyanwu emerged as the obvious choice for the leading role early in the development process.

“I think when we did the reading for the Humanitas award, it was just so clear that not only is Ngozi a very strong writer, but the way in which the resonance of the piece flows through her is undeniable,” says McGregor. “I think everyone was pretty clear that it would be creating unproductive work for ourselves not to let the obvious right choice shine through.

“Even if she wasn’t the writer — if she had come in to audition, I think she would have been the right person for the role,” continues McGregor. “She has the kind of mind and emotional dexterity that allows her to shift those roles and still pay attention to her playwright hat, even as she’s executing her role as an actor.”

For Anyanwu, starring in her first professionally produced play has been an empowering experience about understanding the natures of grief and death.

“I think [Nkechi’s] journey is really about figuring out that grief is OK,” says Anyanwu. “Pain is just part of life. So I think her journey is very much about understanding that you don’t have to be strong all the time. You don’t have to be this sort of impenetrable wall, that you can move through life and it’s going to have its very high ups and very low downs — but it’s OK to have both.”

“Good Grief” is now playing at 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays and 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays through March 26 at Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. Tickets are $25 to $70. Call (213) 628-2772 or visit centertheatregroup.org.

christina@argonautnews.com