In West African mythology, Mami Wata is a water spirit that most commonly takes the form of half woman, half fish. She’s a mermaid. Some regard her as a deity, too.
Mami Wata’s spiritual significance is anchored in the ancient traditions of the Ibibio and Efik people of coastal south-east Nigeria, and legend has it that she abducts unsuspecting swimmers and temporarily takes them to a paradisiacal world before setting them free, newly enlightened.
Chinonyerem Odimba’s new play Unknown Rivers is rooted in this spirituality. When 19-year-old Nene (Nneka Okoye) suffers an ordeal, it is Mami Wata that takes her fragile body and heals it. Odimba’s tender play drifts from real world to mystical realm and back again, highlighting the myriad ways black women are forced to hide their pain and delivering an incisive dissection of the ‘strong black woman’ stereotype.
The performances are capable enough but they feel out of sync with the story. The design elements in Daniel Bailey’s production sometimes feel as though they are working against the texture of the writing. The introduction of music is occasionally startling and sometimes distracts from the action on stage. The thrust stage feels too cavernous for such an intimate story and some of the dialogue gets lost in the space.
But, as with Zawe Ashton’s recent play, For All the Women Who Thought They Were Mad, this play draws attention to some of the harshest realities of life for black women in contemporary Britain. Side by side, hers and Odimba’s pieces paint a picture of hope.