If plays are meant to be a portal to another world, a reminder of uncomfortable truths and a call to action, then Liberian Girl, now playing at the Royal Court, is a must-see for exemplifying these very qualities. Set during the first Liberian Civil War, the play follows the story of young Martha (Juma Sharkah), who finds herself mistaken for a young boy and forced to join the rebels unit. Liberian Girl is gripping: the stakes are unbearably high as Martha’s secret is a ticking time-bomb, and director Matthew Dunster has created a palpable sense of danger in the Royal Court’s intimate upstairs space.
The play text opens with a quote from Africa’s first female leader, Ellen Sirleaf Johnson, which reads, “The abuse women suffer during conflict is a reflection of the interaction between men and women, boys and girls, during peacetime.” And indeed, the most gut-wrenching element of Liberian Girl is the knowing throughout that, despite Martha’s being able to walk, talk and fight like a man, her safety rests on a knife edge: the discovery of her sex. Martha embodies the very idea that gender is performed, and that being born female renders you innately vulnerable. Sadder still – and this is where I believe the success of Liberian Girl lies – she is highlighting our innate cultural acceptance of that same destructive gender dynamic. The tension in watching this play is heartbreaking to the point of being almost unbearable. It’s a shocking reminder that attitudes towards women, whether in peace or war, are deeply and profoundly unjust and unfair.
Liberian Girl is Diana Nneka’s first play, and yet it is a masterclass in storytelling and craft. All the characters are incredibly human, and there are times where we come to like even the most deplorable of them. Michael Ajao and Valentine Olukoga (as Double Trouble and Killer) make a wonderful yet terrifying duo, oscillating from boyish jokes to wielding guns in the face of anyone who offends them. Atuona makes it clear that you only have to hand someone a gun to make them powerful, and yet how so often people will do anything and assume any role they must to survive.
It’s hard to fault this production: not only is the play itself gripping, important and expertly written, but the direction, design and cast are flawless. It truly gets the heart racing, both for our desire to see Martha pull through and because of the sheer injustice of it all. One only hopes that if theatre truly is a vehicle for change, this play will have the impact and reach the audiences it deserves.
Liberian Girl is playing at the Royal Court until 31 January. For more information and tickets, see the Royal Court Theatre.