Little Miss Burden

Play: Little Miss Burden Playwright: Matilda Ibini Director: Debbie Hannan Theatre: Bunker Theatre Review by Briana Carter

Matilda Ibini’s Little Miss Burden is a refreshingly authentic coming of age story. This raw and rather gutsy play is inspired by Matilda Ibini’s own life experiences as a disabled woman of colour. The play brings visibility to the historical and institutional erasure of disabled people’s narratives – while still managing to be charming and inspirational.

Set in East London during the 1990s, Little Miss (Saida Ahmad) – who we discover lives with a rare genetic disorder, limb-girdle muscular dystrophy (LGMD) – is accompanied on stage by her two sisters, Big Sis (Michelle Tiwo) and Little Sis (Ani Nelson). Their chemistry is infectious. Nelson and Tiwo propel the story with such grace and humour, which is a pure joy to watch.

Ibini’s writing mixes tragedy with comedy brilliantly. Without it you might not survive the first half.  Saida Ahmed warms your heart as the script provides her with strong comedic dialogue, while also giving a sensitive and heart-breaking portrayal of a teenage girl whose life is anything but banal.

The contrast between unbridled joy and deeply troubling events is underpinned by the use of Helen Hubert’s staging, which smacks of a children’s TV show. It reminds the audience of the naivety possessed by Little Miss (and her sisters) in navigating the world around her, and even her Mother, in coming to terms with the perceived ‘burden’ of disability in general.

There is so much to relish from this production, especially the way script, its execution and stage directions gel. The deliberate erasure of the word ‘disabled’ from the script before Little Miss’s diagnosis is a clever nod to her Mother’s, and society’s taboo attitude towards those who are less physically able.

Hubert’s staging is simple: white walls and white wheelchair ramps decorated in splattered paint. Combined with Debbie Hannan’s focused direction on bringing to life the courage and strength of Ibini’s script, this minimal set offers a subtle reminder that we must create inclusive space for disabled people.

Little Miss is shuffled to Nigeria and face to prayer lines at church, seeking healing from a far and distant God. Discussing her lack of belief in her mum’s prayers Little Miss tells her, “I’ve stopped praying because every time you say God will heal me, it hurts. It sounds like you blame me. Like I’m doing something wrong. Like I’m the one preventing some miracle from happening.”

Eager to please those around her, Little Miss is desperate to find an answer, despite the heavy burden of depression and anxiety. This intersectionality of her faith and family, explored particularly through the characterisation of her Mother, is the fuel behind the question of purpose and identity. The love, encouragement, and hope offered by Little Miss’s Mother are partnered with an abundance of shame, misplaced responsibility and ignorance, representing her internal struggles in very real ways for the audience.

All that being said, with so many topics being explored, the play occasionally feels overloaded and difficult to digest. Heavier topics, such as sex and monthly periods, are juxtaposed with seemingly trivial topics in comparison, such as 90s fashion.

These difficult ideas are often talked around, rather than about, in able-bodied spheres let alone disabled-led ones. It feels as if Ibini wrote this in the belief that this would be her only chance to tell her story. Which unfortunately, with the lack of female and disabled female voices in particular, may be true.

Ibini has a brilliant story, one that’s underrepresented – but also one which requires greater filtration and honing for it to reach its full potential.

Little Miss Burden is a must see, full of authenticity and vulnerability. This is an honest and truthful telling of how hard it is to navigate the world with a disability, being black, and being a woman. It would be a shame to miss this timely and yet often unheard story, so it needs to come back and reach a wider audience.

Little Miss Burden was at Bunker Theatre, London.

Photo credit: Kofi Dwaah

Read Heather Marks’ interview with Little Miss Burden playwright Matilda Ibini here.