for all the women who thought they were Mad, Stoke Newington Town Hall

by Laura Kressly

Joy is 40 years old, a successful businesswoman, and happily childfree. She is also up for a significant promotion, puts in long hours in a stressful job, and faces daily microaggressions from a systemically racist and misogynistic society. When she witnesses a woman jump from the roof of the 40-storey office block where she works, the experience combines with the societal pressure and violence Black women experience – represented by a chorus of Black women – threatening to completely overwhelm her.

Zawe Ashton’s new play alternates abstract choral sequences with episodes from Joy’s life, which become increasingly surreal as the story progresses. The distinction between what is real and what is purely inside her head becomes more and more blurred, which makes what is staged all the more open to interpretation and confusion. Individual lines and experiences will resonate all the more differently with individual audience members and though this can be muddy, accepting the non-realism and convoluted dramaturgy as representative of Joy’s mental and emotional state makes the production all the more elucidating.

Mina Andala plays Joy with strength and confidence. She is educated, articulate and detached from the traditions of her ancestors, but the comments from her boss about her clothes and her hair, throwaway to him but detrimental to her, wear her down. These work in conjunction with her family’s expectations of her as a woman, and society’s stereotypes of Black women, to form cracks in her hard exterior. The ensemble of Black women take on characters she encounters in her day-to-day – the cleaner, her colleague, her mum, and the babysitter – as well as deliver non-narrative lines that are more like poetry in between the scenes.

There’s a lot to process in this play, and it requires active listening and embracing the unfamiliar, but it is visually striking, intimate and reflective. The performance are emotionally engaging and vulnerable, and the enthusiasm with which Ashton experiments with form and structure is to be commended.

for all the women who thought they were   Mad runs through 9 November.

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