Artistic Director Roxana Silbert of the Hampstead Theatre says of Chinonyerem Odimba the writer of “Unknown Rivers” that she is “a major talent with a special voice”, in the play you can see this in how she weaves her story of “friendship, and of women dealing with mental illness through the young (Nneka Okoye) Nene who has not left her house for five years.
Many communities ran from the stigma and shame of lunacy when it comes to facing mental illness. For black women the stats are high in comparison to other women dealing with mental health issues, this Odimba points out rests partly on being “allowed only certain emotions – the angry black women being the most well known trope”. In Unknown Rivers Nene’s character is exactly what Odimba feels black women are not allowed to be “soft, delicate and introverted, shy and broken”. Okoye gives a refreshing organic performance allowing you to feel her truths and into her state of mind.
Doreene Blackstock’s Dee meets the audience with monologues of the love she has for her daughter and how she could not imagine life without her. Her presence is not overpowering but enough.
“Since her ordeal five years ago, nineteen-year-old Nene rarely leaves home. Secure within her mum’s embrace, Nene now keeps the outside world securely on the other side of her bedroom window”.
The cast of four seamlessly draw you into the world of Nene, as her friend Lea (Renee Bailey) manages to convince her to leave the house, where they met (Aasiya Shah) Lune the over excited Asian friend of Lea, who lightens the mood with her quirky humour.
Nene’s depression and anxiety is accompanied by Lea’s and Lune’s own personal constraints – Lea has a mother who is hell bent on where she wants her daughter to be and Lune is a self harming lesbian invisible to her family – all manifestations of how society weighs heavy on women of colour and the “cultural expectations” placed on them.
Daniel Baileys “Unknown Rivers” does not need much props as the cast do all the work. There is real water when Dee takes us into the dream scene, the tale of the beguiling Mami Wata, the African water spirit. Light is used to subtly change the pace and scene. If Odimba sets out to portray women of colour in all their emotional shades then she has done just that. In Daniel Bailey’s Unknown Rivers there is a raw vulnerability that touches the audience, that brings a familiarity to the plight of Nene, Nene is any woman not just a woman of colour and in this play you recognise such.
Cast: Nneka Okoye (Nene), Renee Bailey (Lea), Aasiya Shah (Lune), Doreene Blackstock (Dee)
Runs until 7th Dec 2019 Book tickets