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


Clockwise from top left: Danai Gurira, Jocelyn Bioh, Mfoniso Udofia and Ngozi Anyanwu. Credit Top left, Elizabeth Weinberg for The New York Times; other photographs by Brad Ogbonna for 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.


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.” Credit Brad 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 Woolly Mammoth 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.”

Ms. Gurira: “When I first started realizing I wanted to tell stories from an African female perspective, I felt pretty lonely out there.” Credit Elizabeth 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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