29 percent of black women in the UK have mental health issues, as opposed to 21 percent of white women. Black adults also have the lowest treatment rate of any ethnic group, at 6.2 percent against 13.3 percent of white adults. In the foreword to for all the women who thought they were Mad, Zawe Ashton writes about “the cultural bias taking place behind the walls of institutions allegedly built to serve and protect…the gut-wrenching figures regarding the disparity in maternal mortality rates and the faces that accompanied them.” Ashton’s second play, which has lain unproduced for eleven years, teeters on the verge. Early on in for all the women who thought they were Mad, a barefoot woman jumps off a forty storey office building. The question, “what makes a grown woman jump?” reverberates around Stoke Newington Town Hall, crawling into the empty corners, turning those onstage inside out.
A chorus of five black women, named in Ashton’s text as “The Flourish”, haunt a raised, glowing platform. Their voices crack and bubble, tears streak their cheeks. They grip onto the sides of the stage, trapped in some unforgiving purgatory, bent double with pain. They narrate (or perhaps re-enact) Joy’s (a brittle, wiry Mina Andala) psychological descent, swapping in and out of her scenes, each proving unable to stop her vertiginous fall, each wracked with guilt. Mind and body are indistinguishably connected. Andala paces the limits of Natalie Pryce and ULTZ’s steel podium, lit up and washed out under Kevin Treacy’s fluorescent lights. She undergoes constant examination by those around her, particularly from Michael Fitzgerald’s insidiously harmful Boss/Doctor, pinned like a butterfly wriggling under a microscope. She cries out in pain and his eyes flicker, barely registering it as a blip.
Ashton’s writing has a heavy poeticism to it and at its best, it’s full-bodied and intoxicating, (“the day crumbles like warm earth/ a storm bubbles into the dry cracks”) gathering the audience into its arms. And there’s an appealing, ambitious messiness to it, to its sprawling structure which resists the easy road for something trickier and spikier. When rereading the text after the show, Ashton’s velvety rhythms make sense, slipping fluidly on the page, a multitude of voices coming together to express a singular pain without forgoing any intricacy. On stage, it has a tendency to feel more portentous, more heightened, occasionally insurmountable. Time stretches and compresses in Ashton’s play, but Jo McInnes’s direction slows the fluid beats of the text to a treacly trickle. It hardens onstage like a scab. You strain to connect.
But McInnes excels at the sense of dread which soaks through every pore of the production, drawing on the luridly nightmarish inflections in Ashton’s text – a litany of locked doors and women accused of being witches. Joy’s stomach inflates suddenly, bloating her with a pregnancy she is ambivalent about at best, despairing of at worst. She places her hands in her deep, chic coat pockets and pulls out two enormous heavy stones, mouth slack with fear. The window at the back of the set looks out onto night-time Stoke Newington, saturated in eerie yellow light. These are heart-quickening, electric instances which pierce through the thick, unforgiving fog.
for all the women who thought they were Mad is at Hackney Showroom at Stoke Newington Town Hall until 9th November. More info here.