In this award-winning play, Charlene James writes with great power and sensitivity about the trauma of female genital mutilation. She does so through the jarring perspectives of two fifteen year old Somalia-born girls who happen to attend the same British school. The piece – first heard on Radio 4 last year and now fleshed out for the stage in Gbolahan Obisesan's starkly eloquent production – brings home forcibly how this practice is happening in our midst, in this case in an inner city flat where, on Saturday mornings, seven year old girls are taken by their mothers and cut in an atmosphere choking with the stench of blood and bleach. It's clear that James finds the ritual horrific but she contrives to write about the subject without either demonising the perpetrators or indulging in a slack no-one's-to-blame type of cultural relativism.
The play takes the form of alternating monologues which occasionally collide into conversation – the fluctuations between apartness and convergence intensified by Joanna Scotcher's design which has the two protagonists ranging in diagrammatic spatial relationships on a steep, fissured set of brutalist concrete steps. The lippy, street-smart Muna (played by the extremely winning Adelayo Adedayo) has lived in Britain since early childhood and has loads of friends. Tsion Habte beautifully captures the gentle stoic sorrow of the lonely Iqra, an orphan of Somalia's civil war, who has only been here for four months, has never heard of Rihanna, and is billeted in a bleak tower block with an “auntie” who does community work.
Yet the girls have in common the memory of unimaginably painful violation and the experience of living with a wound that leaves you feeling estranged from your own body. Muna blurts out her fear that her beloved little sister will suffer the same fate on her upcoming seventh birthday. The result is a clash of attitudes which James presents with keen compassion and insight. From the point of view of Muna, FGM is a downright affront that traps you in a culture of shame and fear, with medical repercussions that you can't mention to doctors or school friends.
A part of Iqra endorses the traditional notion that it's a rite of passage into womanhood that makes a girl clean for her husband: “We have done it for so long. It is who we are. It has to happen”. She's still haunted, though, by her own childhood experience of it and her attempts to soothe the children subjected to auntie's razor arise from the fact that “ no one made it okay for me”. She knows, too, that FGM represents a fundamental infringement of the trust between mothers and daughters that no amount of treats promised for bravery could ever repair. The character caught horribly between, on the one hand, life-long indoctrination and an orphaned immigrant's wary desire to be helpful to a new guardian and, on the other, the dread knowledge that she is nauseating the one friend she has managed to make here.
A hugely enlightening evening.
To June 11, 020 7922 2922 – then touring to Birmingham Rep, Royal Court and three other venues.
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