I’m just going to start off by saying this play was excellent and I was only disappointed in myself for expecting otherwise. To my surprise, “The F Word” wasn’t a singular play but rather a compilation of three individual productions essentially centred around some types of pain the world seems to have particularly reserved for black women. The stories told in ‘Gum Under the Seat’ by Odo Mbakwe, ‘Arranged’ by Grace Enock and ‘Untitled’ by Edward Adeshina (who also starred in and directed all three) weren’t news to me as a woman myself, but rather served as an awakening to the level of trauma women are often left to endure at the hands of men.
The first thing that stood out to me was the exceptional use of minimalism; each play utilised the same table and seats with only a few physical props like books or cups being swapped out for more specific moments. However, the use of sound as a scene-setting device throughout the plays is something I don’t think I’ve ever seen done this effectively in theatre at this level. ‘Gum Under the Seat’ tells the story of Louise and Helena (played by Temi Okundalaiye and Deborah Kelani-Afolabi), one being the mother of the boy who murdered the other’s son during senseless gang violence.
The monologues between them are delivered beautifully with enough silence for it to be both realistic and funny because honestly; what do the fuck do these two women really have to say to each other? During this play, you can hear a television in the background with a cocktail of British TV classics playing such as the news and the ‘Countdown’ theme tune filling the painfully awkward silences between them. Immediately no other prop is required to set the scene, we all know exactly where we are, what time it is and exactly how close to home this moment is. Particularly this year the UK has seen a plethora of knife crime leading to the excessive loss of young (black) male life and the public often grieves the loss of potential, rightfully so. But we are rarely confronted with the unimaginable pain that these children’s parents are left to navigate, especially when there is absolutely no reason why their son is dead in the first place.
‘Arranged’ follows the story of Rachel (played by Ore Abiona), a young woman married off to abusive man over 20 years her senior by her family. At this juncture, I would like to mention that Ore’s performance completely stole the entire show for me. She skilfully navigates her way between this woman’s lack of social cues and the level of emotional and mental trauma that comes as a result of abuse. The play opens with Rachel calling the police to report the fact that she’s just murdered her husband; a call she makes so calmly it gave me goose bumps. Rachel appears unphased and almost completely unaware of the gravity of what just took place, to the point where she offers the police officers a cup of tea when they arrive to her house. At first her unbothered demeanour appears comical, but as she robotically recalls the tales of her late husband’s abuse, it becomes clear that Rachel’s behaviour is a result of sheer relief. Because finally. Finally, it is over.
As the officers inform her that she’s under arrest and is being taken in for questioning, Rachel doesn’t seem to mind at all citing that “it’ll just be nice to get out of the house.” If hearts broke audibly, the theatre at that exact moment would have been excruciatingly loud. Her parents come to visit her in prison and their only concern is the apparent shame Rachel has brought to the family with all the drama. And even as she tries to emphasise the extent of the abuse she endured for years at the hands of the man they left her with, her own mother dismisses her stating that “a man can’t rape his wife.” The entire audience distinctly winced at this point because, ouch.
We watch the jury debate her fate with one of the jurors (played by Seye Olokode who provided the excellent and very needed comedic relief throughout this play) being adamant that regardless of the circumstances a crime is a crime. However, for probably the first time in her life, someone comes to Rachel’s defence. Another black woman (because who the fuck else would?), who was one of the jurors (played by Deborah Kelani-Afolabi) fights wholeheartedly for her mainly due to being a victim of sexual assault herself. Deborah delivers a profound monologue about how she wishes she had the opportunity to kill the person who assaulted her, something she would do without a second thought. We never find out Rachel’s verdict. We didn’t need to. Realistically, a black woman who willingly confessed to murder and isn’t showing much remorse (because why the fuck should she?) is probably going to serve time. However, the open ending allows room for hope, because for once someone was actually looking out for Rachel. Not her family or friends. But a stranger who understood her pain at a level nobody else could even begin to fathom. And maybe this time it would be enough.
The last play which the author has chosen not to title is simply a conversation very much like the first. Olufemi and Dorcas (played by Bosun Akis & Titi Elegbede) meet at a restaurant and judging by Olufemi’s hesitation and the fact that Dorcas clearly doesn’t even want to be anywhere near him, we know something is really off. The script however chooses not to reveal the actual reason for Dorcas’ evident hatred for Olu, who we learn is her cousin, until the play itself is almost over. This could have easily been overtly frustrating for the audience had it not been obvious that whatever Olu did was bad. Really bad. We eventually discover that he in fact sold his cousin into sex work under the guise of starting a new life in another country some years back and as soon as we find out, it makes perfect sense to me why we didn’t find out earlier. Because like Dorcas, I don’t think I would have been willing to sit through Olu’s bullshit apologies and stuttering knowing the gravity of the violation he put her through. And yet men still somehow find the temerity to ask you for your time and forgiveness even after quite literally ruining your life. Dorcas makes it clear that the only reason she showed up this time to hear him out is because she knows God doesn’t want her to hate him. Olu foolishly assumes this means there’s a chance he’s already forgiven which she shuts down immediately stating that she does in fact still hate him. But forgiveness is a journey; showing up was step one.
Women are often painted out to be these confusing creatures with a unique ability for holding grudges and making a man’s life difficult, but this is far from the truth. The truth is black women are often trampled on by almost every man placed in our lives only to have sons who the world takes from us as well. Even after unspeakable levels of maltreatment, our ability to endure and survive is unmatched. What I loved most about this play is the amount of room it left you to come to your own conclusions and have your own take on what it really means to be female. In and amongst all the tragedy and discomfort is an inexplicable amount of fight, fortitude and forgiveness; not exactly the F words the world deserves from us. But the ones we repeatedly choose to give anyway.