‘Each episode of depression I have experienced, I have experienced because of the struggles I have faced in my life as a Black woman’.
Those were the words spoken by a fellow panellist who went on to share her personal testimony of distress, as part of the discussion which followed the reading of Still Barred. Still Barred is a play which its author Damilola K. Fashola describes as ‘an exploration of four female prisoners’ psyches playing puppet to the punitive overpower of reality’. Like the play, the panel discussion focused on mental health and on the often invisible trauma of Black women in a context of intersectional violence. The events of the play occur, we are told, on the imaginary Steel Barred Island and focus on four characters: Elii, the dreamer; Mon, the marker; Jo, the writer; and Yaz, the washer.
Through intense and dialogical exchanges between Elii and the other characters, each of the women’s inner demons are revealed. There are graphic descriptions of child rape, of maternal abandonment, of emotional abuse and of neglect. Several allusions to child death are made. Some of these traumas are re-enacted and relived by the characters during the play. The former are of course the demons which have symbolically trapped the characters on Steel Barred Island. A prison of their mind. Each of the women avoid experiencing the pain of these traumas through a range of defence mechanisms: Elii and her constant daydreaming, Mon’s humour and matter-of-fact approach, Jo’s apparent fear of emotions and Yaz’s incessant washing. There are strong themes of disconnection and dissociation. What makes the play so compelling is its fluid boundaries between the characters’ imaginations, recollections, hallucinations, dream content and ‘reality’.
This lack of clear boundaries makes for a complex and multi-layered plot. In addition to leaving ample room for multiple viable interpretations, it draws the viewers in, almost as though the play is closing in on them and their disowned stories of pain and trauma. At times this becomes emotionally laborious or claustrophobic but injections of wit and humour and captivating performances help viewers remain engaged.
Each of the characters could symbolise different parts of one and the same woman — or arguably, parts of us. The play brings into the viewers’ consciousness the manner in which Black women deal with trauma and the way we are expected to function optimally even when harmed or oppressed severely. Generations of Black women have been taught that they cannot or should not attend to their wounds. The social expectations that our suffering is a central and necessary part of lived realities and that it must be born in silence is strong, still.
It is unsurprising that the panel discussion centred on ‘the strong Black woman’ and the burdens it places on us. The panellist who spoke of the socio-political nature of her depression also spoke of being ‘rejected’ by her mother who felt let down by a daughter who could not bear the weight of everything that a white supremacist and patriarchal society threw at her. After the play, there were testimonies of the trauma of continually seeing dead Black bodies while scrolling down one’s timeline on Twitter: a constant reminder of the insanity of the world and of the efforts required to maintain one’s own sanity. Another panellist spoke of having been told to keep strong ‘just like other women in her family’ before her, who may have been raped or abused, when she disclosed the sexual abuse she had suffered at the hands of an uncle.
Those three short sentences could probably sum up the messages most audience had received, sometimes from their own mothers when faced with trauma. Is the play ‘perfect’? No. I felt slightly uncomfortable that the narrator and ‘reality’ voices were male, and it could be argued that the socio-political and historical contexts which featured so heavily in the panel discussions were not explicitly dealt with in the play. Further, the story line is difficult to follow in places and at times, meaning-making is so cognitively intense that it risks alienating viewers.
Nonetheless, the response the play may provoke in audiences provides important insights in terms of our own coping mechanisms. Indeed, it mirrors the characters’ struggle and the ways that trauma and pain are dealt with as a whole. Still Barred centres Black women’s voices and provides a reminder that trauma does not disappear. It stays with us, whether through our reduced ability to provide nurturing attention to the suffering of our children as mothers or through the unconscious repetition of traumatic events, sometimes in the form of dreams or hallucinations. Still Barred encourages us, if only indirectly, to speak out, to attend to our vulnerability and to take some time to sit with ourselves and with our full and complex histories — warts, wounds, skeletons and all. An unconformable but necessary undertaking for our self-care.
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Guilaine is a French woman of African descent, an amateur writer, an independent trainer and a race, culture and equality consultant currently working toward a Doctorate in Clinical Psychology and accreditation as an integrative psychotherapist. Before this, she completed a degree in Cultural Studies and studied Counseling Psychology after obtaining a Masters in Transcultural Mental Health. She blogs at racereflections on the interface of psychology, mental health, social justice, inequalities and difference. Tweet her @KGuilaine
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