Writer: Charlene James
Director: Gbolahan Obisesan
Reviewer: Stephen Bates
Migration across continents, whether forced or voluntary, may bring together very different cultures, but sometimes the contrasts are so stark that we have to question whether we can just stand by and accept customs that we see as alien. “Who are we to judge other countries, other faiths, other traditions?” we may ask ourselves, but Charlene James’ powerful 70-minute one act play on the subject of female genital mutilation (FGM), compels us to make judgements.
As augured by the directness of its title, the play is unflinchingly honest. Talking straight to the audience, two 15-year-old schoolgirls, both of Somali origin, describe the trauma of their experiences as children, the physical and psychological damage inflicted on them and their lasting health problems. We hear of their pain, incurred without anaesthetic or trained medical supervision and, most movingly, the girls express their feelings of being betrayed by the people that they loved and trusted most.
Muna (Adelayo Adedayo) has lived in London with her parents since infancy and she is determined that her little sister, approaching her seventh birthday, will not suffer the same ordeal as her. Outwardly, she is a typical British youngster, cheeky, full of vigour and hero-worshipping Rihanna, but, when her i-pod blares out “…beautiful, like diamonds in the sky”, we can see the irony that much of the sparkle has been stolen from her life,
Iqra (Tsion Habte) is orphaned as a result of conflicts in her home country and newly arrived to live with an aunt in a run down tower block on a social housing estate. Her confused thoughts associate teachers in her new school with horrific acts of war that she has witnessed and she reaches out to Muna, who becomes her only friend. She is curious about British culture, but she wears traditional Muslim dress and defends FGM. In spite of her own experiences, she believes it to be part of her heritage and identity.
The play is presented as two overlapping monologues, the girls telling their stories and, usually, speaking of each other in the third person; even when together, they rarely interact directly. This gives the production a documentary feel, overly factual, that results in a delay before it takes hold. However, two tremendous, heartfelt performances eventually turn it into a real drama of considerable force.
Gbolahan Obisesan’s lucid, uncluttered production has a gloomy look, performed on grey-carpeted steps in Joanna Scotcher’s dominating design. Approaching the climax, a gripping plot develops and the tone changes, allowing writer and director to ratchet up the tension to the level of a suspense thriller.
It is estimated that half a million girls and women who have undergone FGM now live in Europe and James turns this savage indictment of the practice into a loud cry for help. The writer’s descriptions are graphic, her language is harrowing and her play has a chilling authenticity.
Runs until 11 June 2016 and then tours | Image: David Sandison