Night, Mother’ is the sort of play that can haunt the innocent spectator who’s only heard the drama is about depression and a young woman contemplation of suicide.
Staged last weekend at Kenya National Theatre’s Ukumbi Mdogo, one might assume you wouldn’t be afflicted with a suicide taking place on the Kenyan stage. And yet, one can recall a number of other gruesome scenes performed recently on stage in Nairobi. For instance, there was the way Jesus was tortured and slaughtered at the Kenya National Theatre in Jesus Christ Superstar.
Then there was Nairobi Performing Arts Studio’s interpretation of the hit South African (and Broadway) musical, Sarafina, where student protesters were shot dead by Apartheid home guards right there on the National Theatre stage.
But even with these recollections, one wouldn’t necessarily expect to be affected so deeply by the performances of Julisa Rowe as the Mother and Rachel Kostrna as her miserable daughter Jessie.
The haunting sense only gradually creep up on you. It’s in a way that’s similar to how the Mother only gradually sees that her daughter means it when she says point blank that she’s going to kill herself. Jessie doesn’t say she ‘wants’ to kill herself. Rather, she firmly declares she intends to do the fatal deed that very evening.
She won’t be deterred by her mother’s imploring which gradually reaches a high pitch of pain that Julisa miraculously manages to sustain. It’s that pitch which starts off as a slow burn. The Mother initially attempts to distract her child from her intended end. Mother tries to make light of the matter. She suggests Jessie try her favourite foods, hot cocoa and a caramel apple, the kind only Mother can make.
But the mother flubs it. What’s worse, Jessie’s end game seems all the more inevitable as she insists her mother tell her truths she had always wondered about. Like did Mother love Father? No. That’s what Jessie thought, but the daughter did, even though her father took his own life and left her alone.
And why did Jessie’s husband Cecil also leave her? Mother spills the painful truth: he had another woman.
But what perhaps is the most painful truth the Mother tells her child is that Jessie had epileptic fits from a very early age. She had never told her daughter this before and never even got her diagnosed.
The first time Jessie realised she had a problem was when she had a frothy fit in Cecil’s presence. The story got spun that Jessie only started getting fits after she fell off of Cecil’s horse.
Night, Mother is a captivating and complex story about everything from depression due to ignorance and communication breakdowns to the shame associated with the social stigmas of epilepsy and depression.
But back to the haunting feeling I was left with after watching this Sanifu and ACT Kenya production featuring Dr Rowe, the actress and former Daystar University drama lecturer and Rachel Kostrna, the professional dramatist from Oregon, US.
Julisa portrays a simple woman from rural America who hasn’t a clue that her daughter is suffering from severe depression, which had reached the point of despair and no return. It’s probably the way the Mother finally recognises her own insensitivity to her child’s pain that is so painful to watch.
Equally excruciating is the way the mother’s native intelligence finally kicks in and she sees she’s got a life and death struggle to wage in order to save her daughter’s life. Tragically, it’s a struggle she ultimately will not win.
Night, Mother is hardly a happy play. My feeling is it’s almost impossible to watch without weeping with the Mother and her hopeless recognition that she had no power to change her daughter’s mind.
The feeling of helplessness in the face of death doesn’t feel like play acting on Julisa’s part.
One is haunted by the mother whom the actress seems to know in her bones and marrow as a pitiful creature. She plays a mother whose love is not strong enough to make her daughter see life is still worth living and hope is still something she can hold onto.
Ultimately, both the mother and the child are trapped at many levels. What’s more, the Pulitzer- prize winning playwright of Night, Mother, Marsha Norman, makes us wonder if, in the end, the daughter is more honest with herself than her mother had ever been.