By Zawe Ashton; Directed by Whitney White
Off Broadway, Play
Runs through 11.24.19
Soho Rep, 46 Walker Street
by Ran Xia on 10.30.19
Sharon Hope, Nicole Lewis, Bisserat Tseggai, and Cherene Snow in for all the women who thought they were Mad.
Photo by Julieta Cervantes.
BOTTOM LINE: Zawe Ashton's poetic new work is a personal experience elevated to a communal process of grief and a shared understanding of a struggle specific to women of color.
This is a tragedy; this is a story both familiar and incomprehensible—familiar to all the women (or at least women of color) deliberating their life in unfamiliar places, places that are not home, and incomprehensible to those who aren’t willing to listen.
Set in a liminal space where events unfold without the confines of chronology or logic, Zawe Ashton’s poetic play has the quality of a communal storytelling event where the point isn’t so much about plot, but about finding ways to reconcile between the storytellers and the protagonist of the story. In this case, our heroine is Joy (Bisserat Tseggai), which is the bastardized Anglo form of her name Jendyose Najju Nsugwa. We see her displayed, or imprisoned, in a glass cube that’s her office. She's dressed to impress, fully integrated in city life, even though we still observe her daily struggle with the unwanted physical advancement from her boss (Gibson Frazier), the unpredictable weather, and her general lack of ease.
Around the glass cube is a chorus of African woman amidst a hand-strewn set, trying to find ways to navigate their own roles in Joy’s story. They “tell” the story by observing isolated scenes that play out in the glass cube, but they sometimes also insert themselves into Joy’s world. Through those interactions we gradually discover Joy’s relationship with them individually, as well as with the place they come from.
When the choral characters enter the glass cube, they become part of Joy’s corporate world. Margaret (Sharon Hope) becomes a cleaner and offers Joy ginger roots, and leaves with Joy’s shoes and prescription bottle; the older woman also hums a tune that reminds Joy of her village. Angela (Nicole Lewis) transforms into a rival at the office, and the two women witness the shattering incident of a woman falling from the 40th floor. "What makes a grown woman jump?" they ask, as we witness Joy disintegrating under the pressure of her career, her baby, and her apparent feeling of disconnection from her identity.
As the women become increasingly incorporated into Joy’s narrative, Joy gets increasingly connected to her origins. She begins to call out to her mother (Stephanie Berry) and aunt Rose (Cherene Snow), who both come to her in fever dreams of varying degrees. Delightfully, we are never sure whether a moment is real or imaginary. To the women telling the story, Joy is one of them. But Joy is also the amalgamation of all the different women of color who have forced their identity out of their bodies, and put on a chic coat in order to be “exemplary.”
This is the kind of pressure that perhaps only minorities will fully understand. That indescribable confusion, as Joy navigates her way through both her career path and her memories of a different life, is adeptly represented in an abstract yet captivating way. It also makes perfect sense that she’d see those semi-familiar faces of her childhood, those of her village, in the women around her.
What makes a grown woman jump? This same question is asked again and again; the women pull their young away from the window lest they succumb to the inexplicable force that might pull them into free fall. I found the play incredibly moving in its way of portraying a collective process of grieving.
The cast is superb, with each woman being complex in her own ways. Berry’s Ruth (Joy’s mother) is breathtaking, as a mother’s grief over her child must be the hardest thing in the world to bear. At the other end of the age spectrum, young Kat Williams portrays Nambi with an impressive gravitas beyond her age.
Always trust Soho Rep to strike you with a blow that’s both visceral and thought provoking. for all the women isn’t a straightforward play; it’s at times cryptic and ambiguous. However, the imagery it creates and the ideas it explores will remain with you long after the story is over. It’s like what the women say—they tell that story over and over because it is the only story to tell. And they have to tell it over and over because it is so easy to be erased when you’re a woman, to be overlooked as just another “women like you” (a subtle misogyny from the male characters). Beyond fear, beyond confusion, beyond the anger that arises out of that stew of complex emotions to which no woman can even put into words, the act of storytelling is the one thing that remains. I applaud Ashton’s courage in putting to words a sometimes incongruous (but consistently impassioned) fever dream. It’s not a “perfect” play in any traditional sense, but if you listen, the message is loud and clear.
(for all the women who thought they were Mad plays at Soho Rep, 46 Walker Street, through November 24, 2019. The running time is 1 hour 35 minutes without an intermission. Performances are Tuesdays through Fridays at 7:30; Saturdays at 3 and 7:30; and Sundays at 7:30. Tickets are $35 – $90 (99-cent Sundays on November 3, 10, 17), and are available at sohorep.org or by calling 212-352-3101.)
for all the women who thought they were Mad is by Zawe Ashton. Directed by Whitney White. Set Design by Daniel Soule. Costume Design by Andrew Jean. Lighting Design by Stacey Derosier. Sound Design by Lee Kinney. Prop Master is Joshua Larrinaga-Yocom. Video/Projection Design by Johnny Moreno. Hair and Wig Design by Nikiya Mathis. Production Stage Manager is Chelsea Olivia Friday.
The cast is Stephanie Berry, Gibson Frazier, Sharon Hope, Nicole Lewis, Blasina Olowe, Cherene Snow, Bisserat Tseggai, Shay Vawn, and Kat Williams.