Unknown Rivers at Hamstead Theatre – A justice to the Black and Brown female experience
Writer Chinonyerem Odimba, dedicates her play “To all the Black and Brown girls and women whose softness is their strength”. This play unpacks and unravels the tightly coiled emotional burdens and trauma carried by women of colour, so often repressed. Director David Bailey invites you to explore the thorny terrain that women and girls of colour find themselves navigating through, encountering both misogynistic and racist obstacles simultaneously.
The story follows a small group of friends, Nene, Lea, Lune as well as Nene’s mother Dee. Nene, an 18-year old, British-Black girl who lives in a council flat with her mother and baby, and suffers from an extreme form of anxiety, one that prevents her from leaving her home. Lea is her best friend, her ‘twinny’ also a British-Black girl who works in a ‘shiny, boujee office’ who decides to take her out for the day, trying to appeal to her memory and retrieve the younger, happier version of Nene. Lune is a gay British-Asian girl of the same age and an absolute joy to watch; an apparent bull in a china shop, missing Lea’s social cues for her swift departure in aid of an already nervous Nene. We dip in and out of Dee’s life and her storytelling of old folklore. Lune brings out some rum, which seems to loosen up Nene and the three embark on a small adventure, going shopping, going out and finally going for a swim. During this outing, each of them confronts their own trauma. Nene faces the source of her agoraphobia – a torturous and repressed memory of the sexual assault that made her a young mother. Lune slips off the mask of carelessness and reveals her yearning to belong to her family who regards her sexuality as perverted deviance. Lea has one of the most real conversations that transcend the stage because of how familiar it is, and this was fairly apparent on the night with nodding heads and audible yups and mhmms, confirming the scale and ubiquity of her experience. At the pool, Lea and Lune notice that Nene is missing, only to spot her under the water, breathing, like a mermaid. These young women emerge from their own traumas, Nene even more so, and become stronger as friends and women.
This play runs the risk of oversimplification in its solutions to very complex socio-economic and mental health issues. However, what saves it from being a callow exploration, of a predominantly black woman’s experience, is its deviation from presenting the clichéd strong black woman overcoming her obstacles. Beyoncé’s music video for ‘Hold Up’ from her album ‘Lemonade’ begins with her underwater, and emerging from its imprisonment as she walks out of this water-filled building, down the stairs with water gushing past her feet. We see the fury of a woman who has been cheated on, raising a baseball bat and smashing car windows in hair-raising elation. Whilst this manifestation of a determined, captivating and powerful display of a Black woman’s femininity should be celebrated, it is equally important to have a visual representation of Black women being allowed to be fragile and soft. Sound Director Duramaney Kamara also swerves cliches by not playing music that would be more welcome on teh soundtrack of the movie ‘Girls Trip’ . Playing ‘Venom‘ by Little Simz on the way out, there is a general feeling of feeling uplifted, but not necessarily indestructible. The songs opens with “Life sucks and I never tried suicide / Mind’s fucked even more than I realize” before the crescendo of “Never givin’ credit where it’s due ’cause you don’t like pussy in power /
The stage itself is not particularly impressive; there are fluorescent lights at the back of stage, in red and blue, which appear to look like cracks and are somewhat reminiscent of a river. However, we do see the stage fill with water from discreet taps or hoses. Bailey changes the terrain, the elements and dramatically changes the situations in which our characters themselves in which perpetuates a thee of adaption and acceptance.
The character of Dee, the matriarch in some ways, is somewhat disconnected from the main plot and one may wonder what her purpose is. Whilst not an interesting character of her own accord, she is integral in contextualising the story, She tells a tale of a cursed child banished from her home, along with her mother, by her father who notices a birthmark that is ominous. The child eventually grows scaly skin, and resembling something that ought to dwell in the sea, the mother decides to take her to the river to see if that’s were she belongs, where it turns out that she is a mermaid.
The tale of the mermaid child and Nene’s apparent reincarnation of her is perhaps the only point at which you may have to suspend your belief past a point you’re really comfortable with, considering the supernatural does not enter the story at any other point other than this. In fact, the supernatural seems to be a an unnecessary aspect to the play which is already rich with a strong storyline and themes.
This is play that can be enjoyed by all audiences, but is written and performed to be appreciated by Black and Brown audience members. Whilst the introduction of real-life mermaids was an unnecessary stretch of the imagination, the core issues presented in this play are very real that it may just about tease a tear.
Unknown Rivers will be on at Hampstead Theatre from the 31st October to the 7th December
Photo Credit: Robert Day