Written and directed by Justina Kehinde, UMUADA returns to the stage in a sold out run as part of the King’s Head Theatre’s Playmill festival. A shorter version of the play written by Kehinde and Yosola Olorunshola first premiered at the Bunker Theatre in November 2017.  UMUADA is a cathartic deep dive into the inner workings of the Nigerian matriarch and the subject of mental health, which is often taboo in the Nigerian Diaspora community.

UMUADA, which means first born daughter in Igbo, tells the story of Anwu (Tami Ogunjobi) who is on the cusp of turning 60. Her daughters Nike (Jess Layde) and Tolu (Tayo Elesin) insist on throwing her a birthday party at their home in London, a departure from the solemn way they usually observe Anwu’s birthday. Anwu’s husband is away in Nigeria building a house in Victoria Island, in a process plagued with problems, and her beloved son Chi is not around.

UMUADA is refreshing in its deconstruction of the notion of the Nigerian matriarch, in a way that feels authentic and really strikes a chord with members of the audience. It is rare that audience members are faced with such a sustained treatment of the inner thoughts and feelings of this type of character. The Nigerian matriarch is usually depicted as a figure of supernatural inner strength willing to go through any obstacle for her family, or the comic relief busy body who pressures their children to get married, or to study etc. Kehinde’s Anwu possesses both elements, and provides an unseen window into the fragility of this recognisable figure, exploring the harder to stomach themes of loss, disappointment, insecurity, loneliness and alienation.

Ogunjobi’s Anwu is eerily recognisable to those familiar with Nigerian culture, quick tongued, elegant and full of parables. Anwu’s chiding of her children and recollection of her husband’s courtship are stand out moments of hilarity. The subtlety in the difference between her treatment of her two diligent daughters and her currently missing son is expertly done, raising the issue of gender dynamics and the role of the son vs. the role of the daughter in an African household. Kehinde’s use of voicemail recordings highlights the tangible absence of the men in this family, and the silence they leave behind despite the women’s attempts to hold the family together.

Ogunjobi’s monologues are a thing of beauty, expressing Anwu’s feelings of a sense of a loss of identity having married into a different culture, moved to a new country and then become a mother. The toll and parasitic nature of the range of demands on her as mother, wife and daughter are expertly shown, and the audience can only empathise with Anwu’s weariness. Whilst UMUADA, is able to fully flesh out its mother figure, its brevity does not allow it to fully flesh out the mental health themes of its story, despite a compelling introduction of this subject.

UMUADA exposes further nuances of the lived experiences of those in the Nigerian Diaspora community, and indeed any community with similar traditional values. Its bravery in asking the questions that usually go unasked in such a household is arresting and forces audience members to see things they had not before, or were too afraid to. It will be interesting to see what other silences UMUADA breaks when it returns in an extended form.

Umuada played at King’s Head Theatre from 10 – 14 July

Photo: King’s Head Theatre