It’s hard to put into words what depression feels like. ‘Depression is not poetic’, Koko Brown declares in one of the spoken word poems that ripple through her show Grey. Yet, through and beyond Brown’s words – through the music and live vocal looping, the BSL integration, and design – Grey evokes many aspects of the experience of depression, often with dark humour.
In a song near the start of the show, Brown lists all of the (un)helpful suggestions people have given her: yoga, face masks, self-care, just being happy…But ‘nothing seems to work’. There does not seem to be a reason, still less a cure. She knows that she has a good life in many ways, a roof over her head, food in the fridge. But that does not stop her from feeling ‘hella sad, all of the time’. The frustration of this feeling of paralysis is captured by the use of vocal looping, which stacks phrases and motifs into intricately layered compositions. Songs and lines repeat across the show, resisting a linear narrative of recovery.
Grey is the second show in Koko Brown’s colour trilogy, which began with White, a solo show exploring Brown’s negotiation of her mixed-race black identity, and is similar in style. For those who have seen White, there are call backs to the first show: a poem that explored Brown’s changing self-definition as she grew up in White through the refrain ‘I always knew what I was’ is echoed in a poem that charts her mental health over those years. At one point in Grey, Brown is showered with silver confetti, recalling a similar, visually striking moment in White. Martha Godfrey’s lighting designs are again an integral part of the show. Here, they cast shadows on the grey walls and abstract shapes of Emily Harwood’s set design, or illuminate them in technicolour disco lights.
Unlike White, Grey is not a solo show. It is fully BSL integrated; Sapphire Joy signs Brown’s poems and songs throughout, working from Anna Kitson and Becky Barry’s interpretation. Like the video of Tara Asher’s signing Stormzy’s Glastonbury set, it is engrossing to watch how Joy communicates the feeling of the music visually, reaching up to capture beats, changing her stance to convey the mood. As well as making the show accessible to d/Deaf audience members, the BSL integration provides a visual language that complements the aural language for hearing audience members. Both languages are given equal weight; Joy’s character speaks only through sign language.
Joy is a very expressive performer and her high energy acting contrasts with Brown’s direct, assured delivery in her performance of a version of herself. Together they make a compelling double act. In one of the funniest sections of the show, Joy and Brown perform a skit with the exaggerated cheerfulness of children’s television presenters. They welcome a new special friend – sadness – but when it is time for sadness to go home, sadness just won’t leave.
As the show progresses and there is some tension between the characters, I start to wonder who Joy’s character is. There is a scene in which Joy insults Brown in sign language, driving her into a corner of the set. Is she a friend who has got frustrated? Is she a part of Brown, the inside voice that sustains negative thinking patterns? Is she depression itself? Joy’s exact role is never clearly defined, which can make it seem more of a solo show with interpretation, rather than a genuine dialogue between the two of them. It would, for example, have been interesting to hear about Joy’s own relationship with mental health.
Grey seems slightly less personal than White. There are a number of resonant lines and insights about the experiences of depression, but there is a lack of detail, a sense of distance. This distancing does allow a more structural view of mental health, particularly black people’s experiences. Brown declares: ‘350 million people suffer from depression. Only a third of these get help. If you are a black person you have the same chance of depression but significantly less of these will get help.’ She hints at the reasons for this, including a pressure to be perceived as a ‘strong independent black woman’, and stigma against seeking help for a ‘white, middle-class problem’. However, I would have liked to see it explored in more depth and related more to Brown’s own experience. But I’m also very aware that that’s effectively asking her to perform her trauma – which has perhaps become expected of makers of autobiographical solo shows, especially shows by black women.
Grey is emphatically not a trauma narrative. There are jagged edges and pain, but there is also strength, determination and humour.
Grey is on at Ovalhouse till 13th July. More info here.