Can you go home again? What is home, anyway, when you are a Nigerian-born expat living in America?
That’s the dilemma Ngozi Anyanwu dramatizes with equal parts of heartbreak and humor in her new play, The Homecoming Queen, which premiered on January 22 at the Atlantic Theater Company in New York. It tells the story of Nigerian-born Kelechi, who had left her native village for a new life in America 15 years before. Now a best-selling novelist, Kelechi returns for the first time since then, to visit her aging father as well as revisit aspects of her life she left behind.
When she arrives, she is clearly discombobulated. She excuses her anxiety and confusion by saying to the village aunties, “I’m tired. Jet lag. You understand?” They stare at her blankly.
As an American-born daughter of Nigerian parents, Anyanwu, 35 years old and a critically acclaimed playwright and actress, is herself no stranger to the challenges of living in two cultures at once. Her first play, Good Grief, produced last year, centered on a second-generation Nigerian American also juggling two cultures, as she mourns the death of a close friend. The Homecoming Queen has been named a “critic’s pick” by the New York Times.
Anyanwu is currently working on new play commissions with both the Atlantic Theater and the Old Globe Theater in San Diego.
We spoke to Anyanwu in New York, where she now lives. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell us about the play.
It’s the story of a prodigal daughter, who has divorced herself from her Nigerian community and family. When the play opens and she first arrives at her father’s home, all the audience knows is that Kelechi is very anxious. There’s a disorientation. We don’t know why.
Can you give examples of how that comes through?
She [has to be reminded that] she doesn’t need a key to enter her father’s house, the door is open. Her father says, We have internet and cable! That’s a way of saying, we’re connected! We’re not living in huts and we’re not country bumpkins! She [has to] re-learn how to balance and carry [items like her suitcase] on her head, and how to use the outdoor well.
She also seems to keep forgetting how to say things in her native language, Igbo, and there are words, phrases, and songs in Igbo sprinkled throughout the play. Did you learn Igbo growing up?
My dad made a very strong effort to try to teach us Igbo. But that didn’t take because I was rebellious. He tried to bribe us with quarters, but my need to be like everyone else was stronger. Now I regret not learning the language. Because that is very much part of who I am. [In Igbo], my name, Nogozi, means blessed and my last name means sunshine.
What about your connection to Nigeria?
My parents had grown up in villages about ten minutes away from each other in Nigeria, but they did not meet until they came to the United States and were college undergraduates in Trenton, New Jersey. My Dad’s cousin [who was already here] brought him to America with the idea that he’ll prosper here and then return to Nigeria and take what he learned and build on that back in Nigeria.
And then my parents stayed. There were a lot of Nigerian immigrants in the area — New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland and D.C. — and so I grew up knowing there was a strong community linking everyone, with many cousins, relatives and extended family.
There were big traditions about cooking and welcoming guests. Sit with me, talk to me, and tell me what’s up, we’re not in a rush, there are no distractions. We don’t do that anymore in this country, if you talk to someone for 10 minutes, the phone comes out.
Have you been to Nigeria?
Yes. The first time, I was 13, on a family trip. My parents had not been back since I had been born, and that was their homecoming. We stayed about a month, mostly where my dad grew up, about a two-hour plane ride away from Lagos.
At the time of that first trip to Nigeria, we were living in the suburbs — in Bucks County, Pennsylvania — and the first few days were different. Why do I need the bucket for the bathroom? And you hold it in as long as you can and then you adapt.
At 27, I went back by myself for two months, and we went back again as a family when I was 31.
[On that second trip], I traveled all over Nigeria. I spent time with the cousin who had brought my dad to America. He lives in Lagos, in Lekki, where Obina [a character in the play] moves to. It’s a very nice area, affluent, more like America, and the comparison in the play to Beverly Hills is not untrue. I spent time with my mother’s sister who had never left. She lives in Lagos, in an area like Chinatown in that it’s crowded, with many street peddlers, and very busy. And I also spent time in my dad’s village, and that is the setting of the play.
Are there ways in which you are like Kelechi, living in different places at once?
I grew up in a lovely and kind and very white town in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. As a black person navigating that [culture], you learn to speak one way. With Africans from Africa, they may feel I am not African enough for them. And then black Americans may feel I am not black enough. Everywhere you go is a different culture, and the more I delve into my artistry the more aware I become about being all these multiple identities at once.
Where is home for you?
I feel like I’m still figuring out where home is. Nigeria is not home for me, it is where I visit. Is New York still the place for me? I’ve been here 13 years, but maybe it’s time to think about somewhere else. I’m a bit of a chameleon so I can make myself comfortable anywhere.
Diane Cole writes for many publications, including The Wall Street Journal and The Jewish Week, and is book columnist for The Psychotherapy Networker. She is the author of the memoir After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges. Her website is dianejcole.com.