BWW Review: FOR ALL THE WOMEN WHO THOUGHT THEY WERE MAD, Hackney Showroom
Zawe Ashton's incredible 2019 brings to the plate the second piece she's written in her career. It took a long, winding road that spanned 11 years and more than a few attempts, but for all the women who thought they were Mad finally made it. Now, it's receiving his world premiere in London before opening almost simultaneously Off-Broadway too. Jo McInnes directs the play, which oozes with metaphors and allegoric meaning; the small, daily micro-aggressions that black women have to endure are put together to form a universal experience infused with just the right amount of magic.
Ashton explores an assemblage of themes that go from identity and alienation to mental health and the role of family, but never quite lingers on any of them, opting to snatch them out of the audience's hands as soon as they're offered. This sets the show off as an empirical whirlpool, and prevents it to stand on solid ground, making it feel like a poetic but feeble fever dream. McInnes places the action on a neon-lit platform surrounded by darkness. The characters inhabit this almost alien location, waltzing in and out of Joy's life to aid or aggravate her situations.
As the protagonist, Mina Andala is a vulnerable but resolute presence, wavering only when others try to interfere with her trajectory. Her body language and empathetic approach to the character raise it to the Platonic ideal of a black woman. The Flourish surrounds her experiences and act as a sort of Greek chorus to her struggles; they comment her rise and fall through vivid imagery that punctuates the abstraction of her trials.
Jumoké Fashola steals the scene with a powerful presence that culminates with an earth-shattering plea. She brings a refreshing dose of humour to the stage and grounds her character's daughter, reminding her of her roots and urging her to answer the call of her home. Her performance is acute and detailed, and her final address is as touching as it is well-observed, but it's unfortunately not carried through the very finale of the piece.
What should be a cathartic moment somehow is too diluted to keep the public on the edge of the seat that they'd moved to when Fashola began. What Ashton's for all the women who though they were Mad does well, is to underline the everyday noise that envelops women. Sound designer Tony Gayle and composer Dan Batters accentuate this rather brilliantly with a constant score that runs steady across the various episodes, sometimes overwhelming the act and other times acting like a buzz that drowns out their voices slightly.
The play reestablishes Ashton's distinctive poetic slant, and it's a considerable contribution to the current conversation in the theatrical panorama. It's exceptionally urgent but not as immediate as one would expect, preferring to leave an aura of dissatisfaction rather than being a proper call to arms.