Rashida Mustafa’s Woman of my dreams was announced as a controversial new musical theatre production. Yet, it is written less to be so than to spark a much needed discussion around FGC/M, Female Genital Cutting / Mutilation.
Watching the play among an invited audience of legal, cultural and medical specialists, as part of the annual festival of the North West’s creative talents at Home, Manchester, I realised how tightly woven the subject was into the different cultures and lateral subjects and their clashing into one another for the better and the worse. One must admired the intimidatingly mammoth task that the writer set for herself and from which, at every point of legitimate temptation, she did not back out.
The press release speaks of a debate around the cultural and sexual implications of FGC but this is vertiginously so much more, as if the apparent main theme is only a metaphor, as one of the actors suggested, for a deeper cut.
The work speaks beyond the words of its award-winning writer, Mumbai-born clinical and psychoanalytic psychologist Rashida Mustafa. It is raw, unapologetic at speaking its facts, using the language that, as her son urged her, expresses the play rather than her own more pulled back language.
To be inspired by the world and still be able to keep one’s voice, to be exposing tearing and still be able to keep one’s calm, to be expected to channel the fashionable and politically correct and yet voice as impartial an observation as is possible alongside the factual results of study, (and for the actors in such controversial roles) to have your skin crawl at some of the sentences that needed exposing and yet deliver them convincingly against your feelings to betray that truth, to give your audience a seat and tremor its grounds, is what the script-in-hand showing was executing all at once.
Imagine this. Your voice is muffled, your concerns ignored, your matter binned, your message buried deep back within you… Over and over again.. And there, suddenly, like a seed deeply sown, your message rises from within and speaks of the pain that gnaws at our guts. It politically-incorrectly lifts the veils that protect the embarrassing truths. It says that we don’t need to respond to life as a constant uncoordinated reflex of survival. We can as, human beings, higher than jungle survivors, think, reflect, address and beyond plastering wounds with marketing money and propaganda, find the source and fix it.
Breaking through the sometimes involuntary barriers that the necessities of belonging sets as a duty is a feat on its own. But to speak of the taboos, to dare bring some fresh air in the many closed rooms of the shut down minds of the oppressing groups, conveniently confusing tradition with unnatural selection is going to poke at some set minds (or is it mindsets). There is a lot to fix in a world painted white to cover the cut, bleeding and broken hearts, minds and skins.
To speak of these things beyond time, race, religion and gender, even though expressed within these, showcases them as human issues. After all, the woman I would want to be is the world I would want to live in.
As a consequence, even more expectations were raised for the completion of this work-in-progress after the post-play discussion. The questions presented include:
- Does placing the play in time give us a false assurance that this is a thing, mindset or event of the past? I loved the timelessness of the showing for that reason but others felt it was confusing.
- Does the play need to focus on FGC? I loved that it didn’t because as before, I do believe it is a metaphor for a deeper cut and not a judgement on the practice, especially as its foundations differ across its varied tribal implementations. However, some felt robbed of that focus and expectations were raised such as the need to specify how the practice is equally done in some tribes for male and female. Focus was also mention to provide a directing clue to the minds. I was quite happy not to be sitting at a theatrical version of an easily digestible and entertaining Hollywood formula. There is little realism to be had when any focus naively or conveniently ignores its collateral damage. Interestingly, the two upcoming points raised regarded a little Hollywoodian turn on the script
- Seeing how the subject explodes into so many, deep, ramifications, whether conscious to the author or even the audience or not, is the mind and the heart given enough time to ponder the true impact that the play has on them beyond the immediate reflex of its controversial setting?
- And talking about what the audience is left with, is there enough said that positively portrays the Black or African character or enough questioning of what happens to the likes of the Jada character that is led by an African mind as opposed to a far too common victimisation?
- For the play to remain the clever sparkling of a debate it mostly is rather than the occasional set of controversial affirmations that it sometimes slips into, should there be any of the latter? For example, “White is right, Black is wrong” or the opposite, for example, as particularly repeated so, should never be an affirmation, especially in a play where little redeems the affirmation, but rather the beginning of a questionning, which sparks realisation of mindsets rather than leave the actors and the public in a discomfort that, rather than sparking debate, alienates them a little to it.
- Would the brilliantly conceived judge whose double-sided coin of a persona enriched the debate, benefit from being expanded, both darkly as the villain his impersonator sees, but also, almost uncomfortably, as human, through his maybe once love for his wife, a certain doubt at times for his actions, his uncertainty about what he’s been taught in spite of, and maybe because of, his stubborn application of those teachings, or his relationship with his son?
- Would the final positive message in the relationship between the judge’s son and his girlfriend be enough positive message for the Black folks in a world still hung up in hierarchies based on shades of Black? Would they relate to what happened to Layla and see it as their victory too?
- Is there a way to separate the characters from the actors so both audience and actors can sink into their roles the time it takes for every party to portray the situation independently from the people playing them, unapologetically to the end of the piece?
- And what of the mammoth task to present to such a diverse audience? What perspective should prevail of the characters that are expressed? That of the actor portraying them, moved onto this play by the obvious depth, richness and further potential it exudes? That of the public with as diverse a perspective as the variety of cultures coming in collision yet in focus in such a play writing? That of the writer, moved herself to be the vehicle of such expressions? And does the play has its own voice as the son believes and so having been heard, has it been translated beyond single interpretations or perspectives of it?
The content of these discussions will be used to further develop the full-length version of Woman of My Dreams, with the intention of touring the finished production internationally later in the year. Rashida has dedicated her life to research into the effect of cutting on women and the issues it raises in terms of female sexuality in general. But, she too, looks into this in a context that does not cage the audience into a sterile debate.
Music for the first showing of the production has been composed by Golty Farabeau, a renowned musician from the Seychelles, who is a household name in his native country, but lives and works in North West England. Interestingly, the initial progressions of each song are reminiscent of compositions by the Beatles.
The diverse cast of nine professional actors and musician includes performers of British, various African countries and Bengali origin.
- Writer/Director: Rashida Mustafa – psychologist, writer and teacher
- Judge Clement Sanford: Anthony Fleming – actor
- Caitlin Sanford, production: Geli Berg – singer-songwriter, broadcaster, producer, actress
- Sheka: Dennis Gerald – voice actor, actor, broadcaster, model
- Jada: Seki Williams – actress
- Stanley Stanford: Gareth Bennett-Ryan – actor, audiobook narrator
- Layla: Sarah Sayeed: actor, writer, composer, musician
- Clinic receptionist, stage management: Fereshteh Mozaffai – actress, writer, performer, poetess, creative director of Sheba Arts
- Dancer/Chorus: Jokeh Sillah – Gambian dance artist, West African dance teacher, co-founder Santa Yalla Arts
- Musician / Chorus: Sidiki Dembele – Master drummer, teacher, founder of Denifari group, international performer, lead percussionist and Musical director of Ballet Nimba
- Musician/Composer: Golty Farabeau – professional singer-songwriter and international performer from the Seychelles
- Logo / Design: Amena Zakir
- Administration: Kanchan Maradan
- Sound engineering: Damien Mahoney
- Videography: Clive Hunte, Busha Mann Productions
The showing has been made possible thanks to support from Arts Council England, Home and Lingua Franca World Community CIC – a social enterprise formed to promote cultural education through arts and heritage events.
Find out more and follow the progress and productions at: