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GREY by Koko Brown at Ovalhouse | Review

GREY, Ovalhouse (courtesy of Mariana Feijó) Koko Brown and Sapphire Joy
GREY, Ovalhouse (courtesy of Mariana Feijó) Koko Brown and Sapphire Joy

Mercifully, there’s little that’s grey in Grey, except perhaps the proverbial grey area that arises when it comes to treatments for mental health. In many ways what our unnamed characters (played by Koko Brown and Sapphire Joy) suffer is what everyone goes through – after all, we all breathe the same air, are subject to more or less the same pressures in life, and so on. But not everyone is Brown’s “strong, independent, black woman”, and not everyone is Joy’s D/deaf, strong, independent, black woman.

The interplay between the spoken word and British Sign Language – both are used extensively in this production – is an interesting one, not least because many D/deaf people who I have communicated with say that hearing people sign too quickly, generally speaking. Sure enough, the spoken word in this production is a little slower than many contemporary one-act plays I’ve seen, but never sluggish.

The lighting design (Martha Godfrey) is marvellous, ever-changing with the moods of the characters. Brown and Joy’s characters sort of find their happy place in ‘The Clubhouse’, which seemed to me to be a cross between a children’s television programme and a world of make-believe. In the first half, the audience is introduced to ‘sadness’, and in the second to ‘friendship’; the former is said to have, in turn, introduced the characters to ‘citalopram’, which one could reasonably deduce from the ensuing dialogue is an antidepressant pill.

It is doubtful that the play was intentionally going for a criticism of the perception held in some quarters that the NHS is over-reliant on pills as a solution to both physical and mental health issues – in England alone there were, according to the British Medical Journal, 70.9 million prescriptions for antidepressants given out in 2018. The more salient points being made in this production are a) so many people think they have the miracle cure for feeling down whenever one dares to speak out and say they’re not altogether okay at the moment, and b) for various reasons, people in the black community (the production’s choice of words) are disproportionately affected by depression.

The music and soundscape used was occasionally irritating and overly repetitive, though I hasten to add there were other points during the performance where I found myself listening to the beat and enjoying it so much (even if it is not the sort of music I would ordinarily listen to) that I had to deliberately refocus on the narrative still being told. Yes, it’s about depression, but that does not make it depressing, and while there isn’t anything like a fairy-tale ending to this story (if it could even be called an ending at all), there’s some hope for Brown. But perhaps there always was: for instance, although she wanted to, she stopped herself from jumping in front of a train, because she didn’t want to inconvenience others.

Perhaps predictably, there are no definitive solutions that arise from Brown’s journey. The play also, justifiably, goes into some detail about the portrayal of black people in mainstream media and the entertainment industry – these are contributing factors to black women’s mental health. Overall, there is an awful lot to consider in this varied and hard-hitting piece of theatre, and an impactful script and intriguing narrative combine to produce an intelligent and intelligible performance.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

I should have a hot bath? Yeah, I’ll totally try that.
I should do a face mask? Yeah, I’ll totally try that.
I should listen to whale sounds? Yeah, I’ll totally try that.
I should write my feelings down. Yeah, I’ll totally try that.

Following her five-star solo show WHITE, Koko Brown now brings the world premiere of GREY, the second instalment of her Colour Trilogy, to Ovalhouse this summer. This autobiographical new show candidly explores depression and challenges the taboos which so often obscure black women’s mental health. But, this is not a production about suffering from depression, this is a show about living with it.

Koko is a strong, independent, black woman. She has a roof over her head. She has food in her fridge. She lives a good life. She’s also a little bit sad, a lot of the time. She doesn’t understand why. Numerous studies have found that black people are bearing the brunt of a global mental health crisis and GREY is an urgent piece of multidisciplinary theatre which opens its arms to comfort and our need to be comforted.

GREY is written in Koko’s inimitable lyrically powerful blend of spoken word and vocal looping, the show also stars Sapphire Joy (Imogen, Shakespeare’s Globe; Casualty, BBC). Working with movement director, Shelley Maxwell, it is also fully British Sign Language integrated and this has been made creatively and theatrically integral to the performance.

Twitter #GREYPlay, @TheKokoBrown, @Ovalhouse
Notes Ages 12+

Cast: Sapphire Joy and Koko Brown
Director Nicholai La Barrie
Writer Koko Brown
Movement Direction Shelley Maxwell
Lighting Design Martha Godfrey
Set Design Emily Harwood
Sound Design Xana

Performance Dates Thursday 27th June – Saturday 13th July 2019, 7.30pm
Ovalhouse, 52-54 Kennington Oval, London SE11 5SW


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