I work with children between the ages of four and fifteen. Their eyes are so bright. From the earliest, the way we grow and adapt to living in the world is through observing and learning. You will understand, if you have ever listened to a teenager complain about rules, or a five year-old explain why they deserve pudding that children’s sense of right and wrong is instinctive, in-built. With their eyes like crystals, children and teenagers experience being wronged acutely, viscerally. They have to themselves an intrinsic sense of justice and injustice.
Cuttin’ It is a play about Female Genital Mutilation. Charlene James writes Iqra and Muna, two fifteen year-old British Somalis who were ‘cut’ at the age of seven. For both girls, the experience of being cut lies at the core of them, buried until it is unearthed by Muna’s sister turning seven herself. Though Iqra is a sudden and welcome friend to Muna, her role in the domestic practice of FGM exposes a gulf between them. Iqra and Muna both live carrying their most vital beliefs in a mixture of pain, love and fear. The love in both of them is intense and afraid and they serve it through vastly different ideas of care.
For Iqra, FGM is a matter of tradition, social and sexual decency. For her, the practice is a matter of caring. She understands the fear and pain and to her it is necessary, unstoppable. Muna can plant the idea that Iqra is wrong, but even at fifteen a lifetime’s worth of covering over, wrapping up doubts, swaddling discomfort, has made Iqra difficult to reach. Her trauma is coated with layers of justification, for love, through fear. Preserving that idea of care at the heart of her is all that drives her now. If you are bound too tight to move then even if you are uncomfortable, at least it cannot fall to you to move yourself.
How can Muna speak to this? How do you talk to people? How do you speak to the personal, social history they stand in front of?
I say children’s eyes are bright. I promise you, when you are looking closely enough at adults, too, you can see brightness in their eyes.
There is so much language in Cuttin’ It. There are so many languages in Cuttin’ It. There are multiple Englishes, Somalis, for speaking to parents, teachers, bus drivers, friends. Language is a key which Iqra and Muna use fluidly, shifting between registers as we all do. Their world and their paths through them are understood through the ways they speak. Nickie Miles-Wildin’s production complicates the already polyglottal text with the inclusion of BSL and captioning. BSL is a gift to theatre in that it exists in space and movement. When Muna and Iqra speak, we see as well as hear the distance between their languages. The paths their bodies make through the air are separate.
FGM is a physical and psychic violation. Cuttin’ It explores the distances it places people at, opens the question, how do we heal people hurt in the same way, by the same thing as us, who have been moved so far in a different direction? Though the teenagers we see on stage are hurt, and distant, they can close in, sometimes.
At the point at which the two girls first meet, when they first properly see each other, Muna has a panic attack, and stumbles off the bus home from school. Iqra follows her off, supports her with a hand while she steadies her breathing and returns to the world. Iqra offers her a small, wrapped mint. It’s from Somalia – the kind Muna’s grandma used to give her. In return, Muna lends her her headphones. Without asking, or being taught, Muna picks up the BSL sign for ‘thank you’. The girls thank each other, see each other.
In this moment without which the rest of the play couldn’t happen, two teenage girls give to each other because they see someone who needs something. Cuttin’ It proposes a model of care in seeing, hearing, and giving.
Cuttin’ It runs at Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester, until 1 February. More info here.