Feature: Yolanda Mercy – “Let’s talk about mental health”

“We’re not alone”, says theatre maker Yolanda Mercy, as she describes her one woman play, On the Edge of Me. “Even if you have those days where you feel scared, sad or just don’t want to get out of bed, know that you can get help and not feel embarrassed”.

With themes of mental health, unemployment and postgraduate blues, writing and playing the show’s only character Remi has very personal roots for Mercy. Upon graduating in dance from Laban, she found herself unemployed and dissatisfied. “I wasn’t on EastEnders. I wasn’t in Hollywood”… she laughs, but her point is serious. Depression among graduates is common, she says. “It was scary. I heard about quite a lot of people who have had breakdowns when they finish University. I asked myself why this was. I started looking more and I started reading more.”

“Let’s talk about mental health”, says Mercy. In Q&A sessions after On the Edge of Me, audience members find the freedom to do so. Mercy wants to collate their ideas into a book or pack because “everyone’s ideas are worth listening to”. At one point, the audience even have an opportunity to interact with the character Remi and change the direction of the play. “I think that’s reflective of real life. If someone influences you, gets you help, it can change your story.” She hopes this will inspire people to open up about mental health issues to friends, families, employers, charities, universities and schools.

Though Remi is a graduate whose life is familiar to Mercy, Mercy recognises that “mental health issues transcend so many stigmas or boxes such as gender, race and class. Most people experience unemployment. Some people – apparently one in four – have experienced a mental health issue. So many of us know someone or may even have a mental health issue, though they may have not been diagnosed.” This is not a play for just unemployed graduates, but anyone who has directly or indirectly experienced these issues. “I hope my show doesn’t just re-educate but gives people something to identify with”.

It certainly seems the audience understand Remi. “People were even laughing!” says Mercy, bewildered. I’m not as surprised by this as she is. Just five minutes before, Mercy had described how she and her creation Remi would google everything from ‘what is depression?’ to ‘where to buy the best bagels in London?’ Despite the weight of our conversation topic, Mercy is energetic and friendly enough to make me laugh, and surely any theatre by her is going to be similar. Her down-to-earth approach to serious issues means her theatre is “not boring, but apparently funny and relatable”.

Both age 25, Mercy and her director Jade Lewis are particularly aware of the difficulties young theatre makers face. They know that getting noticed, funding and valuable connections sometimes feels out of control and impossible. Mercy describes how important it is to be brave: “I never thought I could be playwright. I thought I didn’t have a voice, anything to talk about, and wasn’t very good.” But at Battersea Arts Centre, she wrote a piece on her experience of insomnia. It was dominoes from there: a writers’ course, poetry, and studying Shakespeare texts and their rhythms. “I just didn’t stop… Never tell yourself you can’t do something if you have the desire to do it. Who cares if it’s not good? Be fearless. Try things. Keep doing. Make art. We need that.”

Zimbabwe’s Hifa Festival is the next stop for Mercy and Lewis’ ambition. “I want this to make change in people’s lives – not just in the UK, but across the world”, says Mercy. Well, hopefully: sending On the Edge of Me abroad relies on crowdfunding. Right now, though, the pair are happy to concentrate on people enjoying the show in the UK. “Jade and I both really want this. If you both are fully invested in it, and believe in the play, believe in the work and believe in each other, you’ll get it done and you’ll get more done than you ever thought would get done.”

On the edge of me is playing Rich Mix on September 11. For more information and tickets, click here.