Unknown Rivers

Play: Unknown Rivers Theatre: Hampstead Theatre Playwright: Chinonyerem Odimba Director: Daniel Bailey Review by Chama Kay

Many tired tropes exist about black women, chiefly, that of the ‘strong black woman’, a notion prolific everywhere – from the home to Hollywood. Against this backdrop, Chinonyerem Odimba admits she wrote Unknown Rivers as a play to show that “black women can be soft, delicate, introverted, anxious, shy, broken”.

Unknown Rivers begins with two childhood friends, 19 year old Nene (Nneka Okoye) and Lea (Renee Bailey) on a girls’ day out. Lea, a young professional who works for a publishing house, attempts to put on a special day for Nene, who struggles to leave her home after a traumatic ordeal five years earlier.

Though never explicitly stated, it is obvious that Nene is experiencing mental ill health, perhaps anxiety or PTSD. Bailey and Okoye performances establish the central relationship of the play excellently. Lea is caring and patient to her frightened and reluctant friend, while Nene is clearly haunted by some past trauma which she must overcome to enjoy their day.

They are soon joined by Lea’s workmate Lune (Aasiya Shah) who is the polar opposite to Nene: confident, outgoing, risk-taking and carefree. Shah’s delivery is full of energy and quick wit. Lune’s character’s devil may care attitude (and penchant for rum) lead to the newly formed trio embarking on an impromptu adventure far removed from the plan Lea had in store.

Running parallel to the story of the three young women is a monologue from Dee (Doreene Blackstock) an older woman of West African heritage. Dee speaks of the joys and challenges of motherhood, and shares the mythical story of Mami Wata, a West African deity whose story mirrors that of one of the characters in the play.

Blackstock portrays the type of wisdom one can only gain through years of living, loving and learning to accept difficulties in life. Her scenes provide much needed relief for the audience, especially when the trio’s bond buckles under the strain with the tone taking a darker turn.

Credit must be given to Odimba for deftly exploring the friendship between two young black women. The depth of Lea and Nene’s relationship is clear throughout the play, which benefits from Bailey and Okoye’s strong performances and Daniel Bailey’s solid direction.

Amelia Jane Hankin’s set and Martha Godfrey’s lighting are a visual marriage. The lighting is soft and subtle at moments when Lea and Nene are intimate, allowing the audience to feel their emotionality but also the delicate nature of their friendship. Conversely, we are met with harsh red tones during scenes of personal trauma, such as when Nene has a vivid recollection of an assault she was a victim of.

There are a few drawbacks. Blackstock’s ‘code-switching’ from a London to West African accent has Caribbean overtones, which occasionally seep through and is at risk of taking you out of the illusion.

Another is that the play has many ideas without being able to into great depth on some of them. The important subjects of mental health, living as a queer Asian woman, sexual assault and microaggressions all emerge, but aren’t fully developed.

But Unknown Rivers certainly delivers on Odimba’s stated intent. We see black women in a vulnerable and delicate light. We see the fallacy of the strong black woman for what it is and we see a loving but challenged friendship between two young black women, which is when the play shines brightest. 

The few flaws aside, Unknown Rivers is an enjoyable and worthwhile show.

Unknown Rivers is at Hampstead Theatre until 7th December 2019.

Photo credit: Robert Day.