If you are someone for whom the whole idea of a hospice, (the place where sick people go to die) fills you with dread, you might have been tempted to walk out after the first few moments of Impervious, the Back to Basics’ production, scripted by Jackson Biko, directed by Mbeki Mwalimu and staged at Alliance Francaise last weekend.
But if you decided to stick it out (out of courtesy or cowardice), you would have been pleasantly surprised to find Imperious is all about defiance, not death per se. Jedidah (Mary Mwikali) may be bed-ridden, but the doctors can’t even diagnose her main malady.
One reason the play picks up so fast is because Jedidah’s nurse (who doubles as the show’s narrator) quickly turns it into more of a tragicomedy than a morbid weepy drama. Nurse Maggie (Wakio Mzenge) has seen so many people die, she’s ‘impervious’ to fretful feelings about ‘the end’.
She narrates Jedidah’s story in a style that is both chatty and clinical. She gives us the pithy details of her patient’s life. Jedidah, she says, lost both her parents when she was young. She has no sibling, no friends either and no visitors other than the hospice’s therapist (Bruce Makau), the priest (Bilal Mwaura) and the teenage girl (Auudi Rowa) to whom she is donating her heart.
But even if Jedidah had friends, she has requested a block on all visitors. She has also made clear she wants no pity or pretence, no crocodile tears and no free-loaders (the kind who have previously come into her life to off-load their garbage onto to hers).
Jedidah’s perspective may sound cynical, but apparently life has dealt her enough blows to steel her head, soul and heart from feelings of pain. She is also ‘impervious’ to fear, including the fear of death.
Jedidah’s fearlessness in the face of death has a peculiar effect on both the therapist and the priest. According to Maggie, she was supposed to have a speedy demise. The doctors had given her three weeks to live. But three months later, she’s defied their prognosis.
The therapist comes regularly to see her and ask about her mental condition. She finds his curiosity annoying, implying he’s one more pretentious free-loader, trying to penetrate her impervious wall of rock-solid sarcasm. She also accuses him of being a mercenary who only comes because he’s paid by the hour. She makes it clear that he is not welcome, yet he won’t stop visiting.
The priest is much more sympathetic character. He’s apparently in awe of her bravery. He even admits he feels more like ‘a man’ in her presence than ‘a man of God.’ Mwaura is marvellous in the timid, fumbling priest who doesn’t know how to handle his feelings for this woman, especially when she toys with his emotions.
Jedidah is also touched by this man, yet she admits she has never ‘given her heart’ to anyone before. In one sense, she means she has never fallen in love with any man. But in another, she literally refers to the donation she’s about to make of her human heart to a 15-year-old girl named Bay whom she has invited to come see her at the hospice.
The girl comes in a wheelchair, looking frail and in need of a new something. Jedidah has already decided to give her heart away to Bay both literally and figuratively, so when she gets the news that Bay has had an incident and she is close to death, Jedidah blames herself. She feels she should have died sooner, as if it’s her choice to make.
Perhaps what has kept her alive is the sweet affection she feels for the priest or possibly the meaning her life has acquired now that she is giving part of herself so that another person can live.
Either way, Jedidah now begs both the Priest and the Nurse to help her end it fast so she might still be able to save the girl’s life. When they both refuse, she apparently wills herself to death.
But before she does, she invites him to lay with her which, in spite of his timidity, he does. It’s a touching moment not simply because she’s opened herself to the man, but because she wants to sacrifice her life so the child may have a chance to live.
So while Impervious takes place in a hospice, the story is about how one woman comes alive in the last moments before she goes.