Theater review by Regina Robbins
The cast of Zawe Ashton’s for all the women who thought they were Mad comprises six black women, a black girl and one white man, and it’s the outsize influence of that one male figure—sometimes a boss, sometimes an amorous coworker or a concerned medical professional—that drives the drama. The play revolves around the ambitious Joy (Bisserat Tseggai), an African-born woman living in a western nation. Wholly focused on her corporate career, she is beginning to crack under the pressure of innumerable daily humiliations, from backhanded compliments about her hair to people barging into her office without knocking. The other women onstage confer about how to help her if it isn’t too late. Could their collective power counteract the toxic environment in which Joy finds herself trapped? “We speak with one voice or not at all,” declares the motherly Margaret (Sharon Hope). It turns out that’s not so easy.
Actor-playwright Ashton, who is currently appearing on Broadway in Harold Pinter’s Betrayal, weaves her poetic text around an all-too-realistic scenario that slowly evolves into a full-on fever dream. Past, present and future converge as Joy finds memories of her mother country intruding on her thoughts—and sometimes her body—while she tries to prepare for a crucial business meeting. The other women try to throw her a lifeline, offering various forms of black female solidarity, but Joy stubbornly clings to her professional identity: sexless, childless, work-obsessed. She’s determined not to end up like a woman from her family’s village who was accused of witchcraft for rejecting marriage and motherhood. The traditions of her childhood culture, however, cannot be simply ignored. They might be her undoing, or her salvation.
Director Whitney White draws sharp, stirring performances from the cast, starting with Tseggai as a recognizable woman assailed by increasingly absurd and ominous phenomena. At times, the play’s message veers into questionable territory, evincing a hostility toward the psychiatric community that risks playing into outdated stereotypes about people of color and mental health, but its insights ultimately outnumber its missteps. for all the women who thought they were Mad pulsates with fear and anger, but it also radiates warmth and light.
Soho Rep (Off Broadway). By Zawe Ashton. Directed by Whitney White. With ensemble cast. Running time: 1hr 35mins. No intermission.