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Daughters of African Immigrants Use the Stage to Tell of Two Worlds

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Top left, Elizabeth Weinberg for The New York Times; other photographs by Brad Ogbonna for The New York Times

Originally published by The New York Times

Nigerian death rites can be quite elaborate — even after a funeral, there is often a “second burial” with days of lavish celebration to ease the deceased person’s journey to the afterlife.

Ngozi Anyanwu knows this because she’s heard about it from her mother and father, who traveled back to Nigeria to bury their own parents. And she knows that, when the time comes, she will have to do the same for her father, who has spent his entire adult life in the United States, but still expects to be buried in the country where he was born.

But what does Ms. Anyanwu, a 35-year-old performer and playwright born in Trenton and raised in Bucks County, Pa., know about Nigerian burial customs?

That question, and the puzzle of what it means to be simultaneously connected to and disconnected from the country of one’s family, prompted Ms. Anyanwu to write “The Homecoming Queen,” a new play that opened Monday at the Atlantic Theater Company, an Off Broadway nonprofit. The poignant drama is about a Nigerian-born American novelist who is confronted by her own ambivalent feelings about home and homeland when she returns to visit her dying father.

The play is the latest indicator of an emerging trend: American playwrights who are the daughters of immigrants from Africa. Ms. Anyanwu is the fourth female playwright born to African immigrants to have a play produced by a prestigious New York theater in the last two years, and all of the shows have been critical successes.

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Ms. Udofia: “I felt little pockets of anger and frustration because I wasn’t seeing me or the people that I knew in a very nuanced way on stage, so I started writing them to show that we are here.” CreditBrad Ogbonna for The New York Times

“You can complain about how your culture is depicted, or you can do it yourself,” Ms. Anyanwu said. “That’s why you’re seeing a bubbling up of first-generation African stories. We have not been feeling satisfaction with the kind of African stories being told, so we have to do it.”

The pioneer is Danai Gurira, a 39-year-old Zimbabwean-American actor and writer (best known as Michonne on “The Walking Dead”) whose searing play “Eclipsed,” about captured women in war-torn Liberia, was staged on Broadway in 2016. Now her drama “Familiar,” about a Zimbabwean-American family in Minnesota, which was staged in 2016 at Playwrights Horizons in New York, is being presented next month at WoollyMammoth in Washington, followed by productions at the Guthrie in Minneapolis and Seattle Repertory Theater.

Last year saw two well-received New York productions of work by playwrights born to African immigrants: New York Theater Workshop presented “Sojourners” and “Her Portmanteau” by Mfoniso Udofia, a 33-year-old Nigerian-American writer who is working on a nine-play cycle about a Nigerian-American family; and MCC Theater presented “School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play,” a comedic drama by Jocelyn Bioh, a 34-year-old Ghanaian-American writer and performer.

“It’s such a beautiful thing and an inspiring thing and a surreal thing to see a Ghanaian story on an American stage — I never even knew something like that would be possible,” said MaYaa Boateng, a 26-year-old child of Ghanaian immigrants from Maryland who graduated from N.Y.U.’s drama school last year and is now developing her own solo show. Ms. Boateng said a visit by Ms. Gurira to her university “is one of the reasons why I picked up a pen the very first time,” and said seeing work by other women of African descent leaves her feeling that “we all have stories worth telling — they need to be spoken.”

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Ms. Gurira: “When I first started realizing I wanted to tell stories from an African female perspective, I felt pretty lonely out there.” CreditElizabeth Weinberg for The New York Times

The trend is an outgrowth of demographics: African immigration to the United States has surged since the 1970s, so that by 2015 there were 2.1 million African immigrants living in the United States, up from 80,000 in 1970, according to the Pew Research Center.

“The economic migrants are coming in extremely educated, and there’s pressure on their children to do very well,” said Onoso Imoagene, an assistant professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of “Beyond Expectations: Second Generation Nigerians in the United States and Britain.”

“There’s pressure to pursue professional careers — medicine and law and pharmacy — but because they’re becoming a large enough population,” she added, “you have some saying, ‘I don’t want to do that — I want to do arts or music or fashion,’ and you do have quite a number who are trying to create art that showcases their ethnic background.”

The playwrights are emerging amid a rise in interest in African culture in the U.S. — including the work of contemporary Nigerian novelists as well as first-generation writers and artists. Several important theater performers are the children of African immigrants, including the British actors David Oyelowo, who played the title role in a 2016 New York Theater Workshop production of “Othello”; and Cynthia Erivo, who won a Tony Award as the star of a 2015 Broadway revival of “The Color Purple”; as well as the American actor Michael Luwoye, who has just stepped into the title role of “Hamilton” on Broadway. All three are the children of Nigerian immigrants.

“We’re at a time right now where the word immigrant again has become something that seems sort of toxic, and when we hear the ‘shithole’ comment, it’s very piercing,” Mr. Luwoye, a 27-year-old born and raised in Alabama, said, referring to President Trump’s reported use of that word this month in a discussion about protections for people from Haiti and some countries in Africa. “The plays that are coming up today, as well as the literature and the television, are at least attempting to humanize what it is to be an immigrant, or the child of an immigrant, so it’s easier to connect with, rather than something that creates a stereotype.”

The doors began to open with Ms. Gurira, who was born in Iowa, raised in Zimbabwe, and then moved back to the U.S. for college. Ms. Gurira was a graduate student at N.Y.U. when she started collaborating on “In the Continuum,” a 2005 play seeking to humanize women with AIDS.

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From left, Pascale Armand, Lupita Nyong’o and Saycon Sengbloh in “Eclipsed,” staged on Broadway in 2016.CreditSara Krulwich/The New York Times
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A scene from Ms. Bioh’s “School Girls; Or, the African Mean Girls Play,” staged last year at the Lucille Lortel Theater. CreditSara Krulwich/The New York Times
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Chinasa Ogbuagu, left, and Lakisha Michelle May in Ms. Udofia’s play “Sojourners” at the New York Theater Workshop in 2017. CreditSara Krulwich/The New York Times
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From left, Mfoniso Udofia, Patrice Johnson and Vinnie Burrows in “The Homecoming Queen,” which opened this month at the Atlantic Theater Company. CreditSara Krulwich/The New York Times

“When I first started realizing I wanted to tell stories from an African female perspective, I felt pretty lonely out there,” Ms. Gurira said. “I had to be like a mad scientist and have the hypothesis that if I put a multidimensional narrative about an African woman in front of a Western audience, they will enjoy it.”

Ms. Gurira, who is featured in the upcoming superhero film “Black Panther,” said she is writing new work constantly (“I am up to my eyeballs with writing,” she said) and is thrilled to see other writers of African descent now getting productions. “There are so many stories to go,” she said. “There is a hunger for this perspective to come out.”

Ms. Udofia, born in Texas and raised in Massachusetts, trained as an actor and started writing when she was having a hard time finding roles on stage. “I knew immediately what I would be writing about — I felt little pockets of anger and frustration because I wasn’t seeing me or the people that I knew in a very nuanced way on stage, so I started writing them to show that we are here,” she said.

A founding artistic director of the Now Africa Festival, which seeks to introduce New Yorkers to African drama, Ms. Udofia is so eager to champion the work of others that she agreed to star in “Homecoming Queen” to support Ms. Anyanwu, even though she hadn’t acted in years. “It’s important to build kinship, and to dismantle the thought that there can only be one of us,” she said. “It makes the foundation of the house stronger.”

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Ms. Anyanwu: “You can complain about how your culture is depicted, or you can do it yourself.”CreditBrad Ogbonna for The New York Times

Ms. Bioh, who grew up in Washington Heights, Manhattan, had a similar path to writing — she wasn’t getting cast in college productions, so she took a playwriting class. She had some success acting, landing a role on Broadway in “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” but also kept writing. Her work is funny — a deliberate counterpoint to what she sees as the grim story lines of many dramas about Africa.

“I was just really alarmed at African stories only portraying struggle and war and famine and AIDS, and I wanted to add levity,” she said. “School Girls,” a riff on “Mean Girls” set in a Ghanaian school at which several young women are competing to represent their country in a beauty pageant, was a big hit for MCC — and the crowds were unusually diverse, thanks to outreach to African-American and African immigrant communities.

Of course, identity can be complicated. LCT3 at Lincoln Center Theater this spring will present “Pass Over,” a play by Antoinette Nwandu, a 37-year-old from Los Angeles whose biological father is a Nigerian immigrant but who was raised by her African-American mother after her parents divorced when she was a baby; she has only spoken to her father once since, and knows little about her Nigerian background.

“I definitely think that my heritage informs characters who are searching for self, who are wondering and grappling with whether or not they can remake themselves,” she said.

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Ms. Bioh: “I was just really alarmed at African stories only portraying struggle and war and famine and AIDS, and I wanted to add levity.” CreditBrad Ogbonna for The New York Times

Ms. Nwandu said seeing shows by writers with stronger knowledge about their African heritage inspires her. “And of course this is another wave of first or second generation immigrants wrestling with belonging in two worlds, and it’s very exciting to add to the canon of immigrant theater like ‘Long Day’s Journey Into Night’ and ‘Fiddler on the Roof,’ ” she said. “Seeing it now from an African lens and an African viewpoint is really thrilling.”

Ms. Anyanwu, the writer of “The Homecoming Queen,” found herself drawn to theater in high school. Her parents wanted her to be a doctor, a lawyer, or a nurse — something stable and financially secure — but she knew she wanted a career in the arts. “I like the camaraderie, and the community, and the openness, and the rigor,” she said.

She turned to writing, like others, when she encountered a shortage of roles as an actor. “As a black female performer, the reality is there’s not so much work for us — Dominique Morisseau or Katori Hall will have a great play, but that’s only four parts,” she said. “So making things is a big part of my identity.”

After graduate school at the University of California San Diego, she visited Nigeria, and when she came back she started the First Generation Nigerian Project — a group of female Nigerian-American performers and writers in New York.

“The Homecoming Queen,” her first play produced in New York, is directed by Awoye Timpo, a 39-year-old daughter of Ghanaian immigrants. Ms. Timpo said the new work by children of African immigrants has the potential to change the way audiences see the United States.

“Our understanding of who we are as Americans, and what our history has been, hasn’t embraced the complexity of all the stories that make America,” Ms. Timpo said. “With this new wave of storytellers, we’re getting to see who we are.”

Read more:https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/24/theater/african-plays-danai-guirira-jocelyn-bioh.html?&hp&action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=second-column-region&region=top-news&WT.nav=top-news&mtrref=www.nytimes.com

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