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Theatre in Review: for all the women who thought they were Mad (Soho Rep)

Bisserat Tseggai, Sharon Hope. Photo Julieta Cervantes.

Zawe Ashton's play, with its eccentrically capitalized title, is certainly not the worst ever produced at Soho Rep, but it may be the most baffling. As far as I can tell, it suggests that black female business executives who fall out of touch with their African roots risk madness and suicide. Can this possibly be right? Ashton, currently giving a brilliant performance in the Broadway revival of Betrayal, has come up with an admittedly theatrical piece that makes its central argument so starkly that, for the first half of the ninety-minute running time, it's hard to believe that she isn't kidding.

Joy, Ashton's protagonist, is from East Africa, although, when we meet her, she speaks with a thoroughly American accent. She occupies an office inside a raised, transparent plastic cube, placed at center stage by the set designer, Daniel Soule. Surrounding her are half a dozen other women, known in the script as The Flourish -- looking on with dread and speaking largely in riddles. ("If you want to pity someone watch yourself build a room of mirrors and live in it" -- a comment that has the odd ring of an excerpt from a self-help book.) What becomes apparent is that all of these ladies are acquainted with Joy, can see her, and are frightened that something terrible is going to happen -- indeed, they are certain that it has happened before. If the first three or four minutes don't convince you that Joy is doomed, you don't get to the theatre much.

For a work determined to be thoroughly up-to-the-minute, Ashton's devices have an oddly Thornton Wilderesque feeling: A group of actors self-consciously watch the action, even as they take part in it. Also reminiscent of Wilder is the way Joy's existence keeps jumping ahead in time. First, we see her boss, who dangles the possibility of a promotion while massaging her shoulders and commenting how much she smells of coconut. (This scene is the most effective in the play, even if it is a tad familiar by now; the character's manipulations, as expressed by Gibson Frazier, raise a solid mass of gooseflesh.) Next, Margaret, a cleaning lady, enters; Joy seems to know her, even if she doesn't understand why. Joy takes ill and Margaret feeds her ginger root while inquiring why she doesn't have children. "At home, a child's life is the highest blessing," she tells the discomfited Joy. "And if you have twins? People treat you like the royal family."

Then Angela, an antagonistic co-worker who is up for the same promotion, stops by for a catfight, which is interrupted when the ladies stare in horror at a woman plunging from a high floor of a neighboring building. Nambi, Angela's daughter, drops in, further unnerving Joy, who is desperate not to be stuck with her. For her exertions, Nambi is scolded by members of The Flourish, who see her as interfering with the action onstage -- for reasons that remain unclear.

The issue of motherhood, which keeps arising, becomes highly personal when Joy flees her office for a visit with Ruth, an old family friend -- by this point, the play is unfolding in some space-time continuum entirely of the playwright's devising -- and, while eating some African dishes, Joy suddenly, inexplicably becomes pregnant, to her considerable horror. Before long, she is back in the office giving birth; afterward, the highly capable Bisserat Tseggai, who plays Joy, wanders around with her white dress stained by her amniotic fluid.

A reluctant mother, Joy spends a lengthy scene trying to fob her child off on Kim, a babysitter, who only wants to get away. Meanwhile, Joy insists on sharing the details of her terrible dream, which begins with thousands of snakes in her bed and climaxes with her turning into a riverbed. She adds, "I began to cry. My new body ached. I swallowed the skulls of fish and shells and tin cans into my sand." By the time her hair starts falling out in clumps and fat begins accumulating in unwanted parts of her body, Joy is being medicated into a stupor by a genial male doctor. Handing out reams of prescriptions to her, he recalls a youthful time spent in Africa, "I'm always struck that, despite everything, the people are happy and healthy," he says, "They smile."

Well, Joy isn't smiling -- in fact, at this late date, her name seems to be either a mockery or evidence of the heavy hand of irony as applied by an insistent playwright. Joy notes that home is calling, adding, "I meant that that's where everyone is/My family/Their voices." She adds, "It's the soil, really/Maybe if I could just get some of that earth/For a bit/Maybe/It does, it calls you." Anyone still holding out for the possibility of a happy ending will be sadly disappointed. As Ruth notes in a coda sequence after the worst has happened, "You can't stop a river when worlds collide/The sun rains out of the moon, nothing is as it should be."

Many writers, from Toni Morrison to August Wilson, have argued that black men and women cannot own their souls until they embrace the totality of their collective history; this is undoubtedly true, but Ashton's play comes dangerously close to suggesting that Joy, in fleeing village life, has fatally undermined herself, being cut off from healthy food, natural medicine, and the joy of reproduction. I wonder how many takers she will find among the African American women in the audience. It's not hard to imagine that someone like Joy might feel caught between cultures, but the play seems determined to punish her for embracing what it sees as essentially white values like capitalism and a career.

Anyway, the cast is certainly enthusiastic about creating an atmosphere that is both folkloric and full of portent, a task in which they are well-supported by the director, Whitney White. (Cheers to White for finding so many unfamiliar, but highly striking, performers to populate the author's African chorus.) Stacey Derosier's lighting design uses a number of theatrical techniques, including chases and flicker effects, to suggest a surreal atmosphere. Johnny Moreno's video design includes a vertiginous bird's-eye view of Manhattan's canyons. Lee Kinney's sound design is a nonstop battery of music, traffic noises, vocal distortions, and other effects; there is so much of it that it starts to feel rather gimmicky. Andy Jean's costumes are solidly done.

A lot happens in for all the women who thought they were Mad, but one leaves the theatre remembering all of the production's bustle and clatter rather than its ideas. It's difficult to imagine that this back-to-the-land thesis is being presented by an artist who has a long and successful career in television and stage, and who spends much of her time in a city that is a teeming model of multiculturalism. Is there no middle ground? Does Joy really have no other option than going insane? -- David Barbour

(31 October 2019)

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