Review by Sam Waite
Warning: STARS: An Afrofuturist Odyssey contains frank discussions of sexual assault, genital mutilation, and surgical “corrections” of intersex people.
While her own Family Tree, currently in Brixton as part of a UK tour, explores the unwilling sacrifices of black women throughout medical history, Mojisola Adebayo’s STARS looks hopefully towards the future of their autonomy. A co-production lead by Tamasha, an artistic collective dedicated to championing work by and for members of the Global Majority – those who have often been unfairly reduced to “racial minorities” – Adebayo’s new piece raises questions of sexual identity and pleasure within the Black diaspora.
Subtitled An Afrofuturist Odyssey, the play opens with a woman whose name we won’t learn until the story is almost over. Known simply as Mrs, we first meet her at a GP appointment which sets her on an underlying quest for something mysterious and hard to find – her own sexual pleasure. Mrs, now a widow and an octogenarian, has never experienced an orgasm, and expresses that she wishes to do so before she dies.
Beginning with this simple desire, the theme of female pleasure and perceptions of female sexuality runs through the entire piece. Throughout stories Mrs acts out in which she bonds with a young Muslim young, reckons with the unwanted advances of her late husband, and the abandonment she feels from her grown-up son, unmet desires, and a longing for that intensity of feeling, sit just below the surface of every interaction. Her desire to partake in the hilariously named “Spexit” (a relocation program taking select people to live or holiday in outer space) presents the only true sci-fi element and a clear metaphor following her plaintive decree: “My orgasm has got to be out there, somewhere!”
Bradley Charles appears as DJ Son, Mrs’ adult son Michael (“Nobody calls me Mikey anymore, mum”) and is a constant presence in a DJ booth just off-stage. Deeply effective for the brief time he does step on stage as a concerned but emotionally distant presence, his continuous introductions of the backing music suggest the painful notion that his lonely mother sits at home alone, letting his show play in the background for company. It’s a strong choice and one which makes his fleeting time interacting with his fellow actor even more impactful.
Every other role, with vocal inflections to keep them straight, is played by the remarkable Debra Michaels. Able to convey characters old and young, across the gender spectrum, her subtle adjustments of voice and physicality make it feel as if Mrs’ many conversation partners are physically sharing the space. In her primary role, Michaels can both land a joke with a winning charm, and yank sharply at the heartstrings when the moments of emotional weight land painfully on this deeply wounded character. Playing countless minor roles with clear and distinct personalities and bringing to life a fully realised and entirely dissatisfied woman, she is nothing short of spectacular.
Stylised illustrations by Candice Purwin, themselves full of life and character, are projected on the curved wall behind the stage. With help from Video Consultant Gillian Tan, these charming images flit around the screen and bring to life the imagined space travel central to Mrs and her young neighbour Maryam’s desires. Also projected are Stephen Lloyd’s captions, not only a tool for accessibility but an assistance in truly landing the jokes and enhancing the rich, relevant themes periodically discussed. These captions also allow for dialogue from the silent character of Cat, a fish residing in Mrs’ kitchen with whom she repeatedly debates.
The stage itself, a creation of designer Miriam Nabarro, finds the action atop a slanted disc ringed in light. Not only serving to imply extra-terrestrial exploration, this bold design also indicates immediately that this simple set – a table, chairs, doorframe, and a fridge which rotates to reveal a washing machine – is the home of a great emotional unbalance. Nao Nagai’s lighting further enhances this notion, with Mrs becoming the only thing visible at key points in her more emotive monologues.
Co-directors Gail Babb and S. Ama Wray beautifully bring to life a story both richly deep and stunningly simple. Making excellent use of the space, they have Debra Michaels step down from her stage at key moments to come face to face – almost literally – with the audience. Along with the first few rows being beanbags laid on the floor of the exhibition room, this lends an air of authenticity to a story that is ultimately an older woman talking to us about the myriad of struggles she and countless others like her are faced with.
Perhaps the true star here is Adebayo, whose text is so richly textured it might work equally well told with no set, lighting, or even a visual element. Simply listening to the stories of Mrs, young and hopeful Maryam, intersex and proud Maxi, even emotionally absent DJ Son, would carry with it a great sense of power and engagement. Never forceful in her exploration of issues, she deftly handles subjects ranging from sapphic exploration to feeling shackled to an abuser, FGM to attempted surgical “correction” of an intersex character, all with the delicacy and grace they warrant.
Despite the obvious strength of the text itself, STARS sets itself apart by being a true marriage of multiple mediums. From the written and visual elements to the stunning performances and the eclectic, exciting DJ mixes provided by Debo Adebayo, this is a full-scale event. Mojisola Adebayo has crafted a moving and spectacular play, and this extraordinary team of creatives have helped develop it into an all-around experience that will bring forth tears, joy, and important realisations.
STARS: An Afrofuturist Space Odyssey plays at the Institute of Contemporary Arts until May 4th.
For tickets and further details, visit https://ica.art/live/stars
Photos by Ali Wright