Review: GREY, Ovalhouse

“Why can’t I just be happy? What have I got to be sad about? I’m in the prime of my life…”

An autobiographical play written by Koko Brown, GREY explores black women’s mental health, living with depression and the taboos surrounding it. Following the success of WHITE, a one-woman show about identity, Brown returns to the Ovalhouse with this second instalment of her colour trilogy, accompanied by Sapphire Joy, who cleverly integrates British Sign Language into the production as Koko shares her story. Through spoken word and music (with help from her loop station) Brown speaks of being a strong, independent black woman with depression, of her daily battles, of having to cancel plans with friends, feeling tired, or sitting on the toilet, “peeing and crying, crying and peeing.” GREY goes beyond the symptoms and diagnosis to talk about experiences with anti-depressants and living with depression on a day-to-day basis. At times the play becomes more surreal as the action transfers to the Clubhouse, which resembles a children’s television show (“can you spell depression?”) with Joy, Brown and Brown’s finger puppet, “sadness.” These lighter moments intensify the overall emotion of the piece and show that there’s no sugar-coating the reality of depression.

Under the direction of Nicholai La Barrie, GREY combines sound, light and movement to bring Brown’s story to life. With thanks to Movement Director Shelley Maxwell it’s a very visual and energetic play, while Martha Godfrey’s lighting works well to heighten the emotion as the mood of the piece shifts. At times the lighting can be too intense and blinding, though this reflects Brown’s comment that depression “isn’t pretty”. The music, though occasionally repetitive is infectious and allows Brown to showcase her talents as a performer. She puts in an emotive performance as she reflects on her struggles, her voice haunting at times when she sings, her pain evident. Joy meanwhile is energetic in her signing and while she may not have a speaking role, her expressions speak a thousand words. She also helps to add a touch of humour the piece, notably with her judgmental looks directed at Brown when she doesn’t necessarily agree with her version of events. The interaction between the pair is a delight to watch and brings a much-needed lightness to what is inevitably a heavy subject.

GREY is a raw and honest account of living with depression which is sure to resonate with anyone who’s experienced mental health issues or knows someone who has. The play tells an essential story and includes some humbling facts – 350 million people suffer depression while only a third of people get help; black people are less likely to receive assistance for mental health issues (“depression…” says Brown during the play. “…that’s a white, middle class problem.” GREY reinforces the fact that this certainly isn’t the case). It’s not all doom and gloom either; along with the more light-hearted moments, there are positive messages within the production: “I may not always be strong, but I have strength,” Brown says, her words sure to inspire any audience members who are going through the same thing. A compelling, raw and imaginative production, GREY handles a difficult subject sensitively and shines an important light on mental health.

GREY is playing at Ovalhouse until Saturday 13 July.

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Photo credit: Mariana Feijó

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