Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s father died suddenly in June 2020. She was in the US, he in Nigeria, and the world was in the midst of pandemic lockdown. Flights were grounded and his funeral was delayed.
Adichie’s essay Notes on Grief is, in part, a record of loss in the time of the coronavirus. This staged adaptation directed by Rae McKen is a timely examination of the process of grieving but exposes the limits of Adichie’s essay – originally a New Yorker article and expanded as a book – which does not have the space to explore far beneath the shock and horror of loss. As the title makes clear, these are “notes”.
Vivid pictures are drawn of the father-daughter bond. James Nwoye Adichie, an 88-year-old university professor who died of complications from kidney failure, comes across as a loving father and a paradigm of parenthood.
Michelle Asante gives a committed performance as Adichie while Uche Abuah and Itoya Osagiede accompany her narration, adding occasional lines as other characters. They also mime Adichie’s stories while Asante talks. This reduces the drama and gives it a gaucheness rather than augmenting it. They play some of their ancillary parts in exaggerated or comic ways; sometimes it works – Osagiede delivers dry one-liners as Adichie’s brother and father – but there are some halting silences as Asante waits for the actors to chip in with their lines.
Rosa Maggiora’s stage set of bookshelves and sofa seats reflects family domesticity yet looks unremarkable and Simeon Miller’s projections occasionally feature a film of a young girl playing with her father. It is a sweet image but its sentimentality becomes strained and generic when played repeatedly with melancholy piano music, and appears at disjointed moments within the narrative.
There is a very palpable sense of grief at the core of this play but maybe too much raw distress to expand on it more fully. It is perhaps an unfair comparison but Joan Didion’s memoir The Year of Magical Thinking, also mounted on stage, contains many more layers in its searching study of grief. Adichie is, by contrast, recording disparate thoughts, feelings and memories. Either way, her notes do not gain greater life on stage.
Notes on Grief is at the Exchange Auditorium, Manchester Central, until 17 July