My Mother Runs in Zig-Zags is a uniquely rich and eye-opening new production written and directed by Zad El Bacha and Simran Uppal. Featuring an all-BME cast and crew, the piece offers a faithful and convincing insight into the experiences of Britain’s immigrant and refugee communities, balancing both its blunt solemnity and moments of jocular lightness. The authenticity of the play is a testament to the merit of having a representative writing team, as well as a visually representative cast. All too often representation behind the scenes is still overlooked.
The warm familiarity of the piece hit me as soon as the play opened, when the young female protagonists each have nearly identical phone calls with their mothers (‘yes, I know its Ramadan, yes, I’ve been praying’); phone calls which were strikingly indistinguishable from the one I had with my own mother just a few hours earlier. The set, with its cheap plastic stools and a claustrophobically cluttered living space, recognisable to many Black and Asian Brits, mirrors the houses of immigrants and their children across the country. Even the show’s use of rhythm and storying-telling as a narrative device has its roots in African and Eastern tradition. There was no surer sign of the play’s immediate relatability than the audience’s frequent laughter of recognition and identification.
The piece follows a young woman who recounts her Lebanese mother’s war stories to her friend, reflecting on the impact of her hardships, both on her mother but also on the protagonist herself. She is given a naturalistic and vulnerable portrayal by Iqra Mohamed, who has no problem injecting pathos into her performance and making the audience feel connected to her. Equally impressive is the instantaneous likability of her wry and sardonic housemate, played by the witty Shekinah Opara. Both characters feel truthful and human, and Iqra’s monologues are delivered with heart and impact. While it is certainly refreshing to see such rounded and layered portraits of brown and black women, it was perhaps a little regrettable that the show played into the usual archetype of the more domestically-minded and sensible Muslim girl, presented as a visible contrast to her demonstrably coarser and more uninhibited non-Muslim counterpart. Nevertheless, both actors succeeded in creating genuine, lifelike characters, and they perfectly synthesised gravity with a necessary lightness.
A highlight of this piece was undeniably its incorporation of interpretive dance and improvised acapella vocals, under the faultless musical direction of Jolliff Seville. The vocals of Su Ying, Leanne Yau and Elhana Sugiaman added a haunting soundtrack to Iqra’s recounts of her mother’s suffering. A particularly memorable stand-out was Rore Disun-Odebode’s powerful operatic solo during the so-called ‘Sea Story’. The emotive, intense, and at times unsettling dances by Esther Agbolade, Kalyna El Kettas and Jesryna Patel, accompanied by the compelling and energetic spoken word of Michael Akolade Ayodeji-Johnson, flawlessly encapsulated the disturbance and terror of war.
The theme of war and conflict is an omnipresent backdrop to the lives of many migrant families, and My Mother Runs in Zig-Zags doesn’t shy away from showing its brutality. An especially intriguing element of the play’s handling of war is its exploration of how these migrant families may attempt to trivialise or suppress the ordeal they have experienced, and how, as a result of its repression, their trauma may manifest itself in other ways, and in other areas of their lives. This creative, musical side of the piece is complimented by its visual artistry. The set is littered with metaphors: suitcases to explore the theme of ‘home’ and the literal ‘airing of dirty laundry’. The naturalistic acting of Iqra and Shekinah is impeccably melded with these more emblematic elements to create a dynamic blend of realism and expressionism.
El Bacha and Uppal’s play is a thought-provoking piece which explores the effect of inter-generational trauma and the bridges and gaps between immigrants and their native-born children. Although it certainly has moments of hard-hitting sobriety, the piece has an overall warmth and serenity to it. Its potent writing, outstanding performances and clear creative vision make for a powerful piece with an important message about immigrants, refugees and ethnic minorities in Britain.