Mia Farrow’s pregnancy and birth in “Rosemary’s Baby” is a picnic compared to the mothers-to-be in “for all the women who thought they were MAD.” Pregnant women typically feel the baby’s kicks inside them. Joy, the expectant mother in actress-playwright Zawe Ashton’s new play, feels the baby’s teeth inside her.
Ashton is currently making her Broadway debut performing on stage in Harold Pinter’s “Betrayal,” but as a playwright her drama “for all the women” opened Sunday at Off Broadway’s Soho Rep after its U.K. debut earlier this month in London. For the U.S. production, Joy becomes an East African woman working in America, as opposed to Great Britain in the original script. In interviews, Ashton has said that she wrote the play years ago in response to the U.K. crisis regarding the over-medication of women of color there. On the Soho Rep stage, Joy (Bisserat Tseggai) speaks with a very distinct American accent — as does.her boss, doctor and possible boyfriend (the effectively triple-cast Gibson Frazier).
The subject matter’s transatlantic crossing has been carried off without a ripple of disruption under the direction of Whitney White. In fact, “for all the women” could be seen as this century’s “I’m Dancing as Fast as I Can,” Barbara Gordon’s 1979 best-selling autobiography about the over-prescription of Valium to women in the United States. As with the very real Gordon, the fictitious Joy is an ambitious career woman who takes way too many pharmaceuticals in order to cope. Unlike Gordon, Joy is both an immigrant and pregnant. Ashton’s play presents an even more pressured woman on the verge of collapse.
Ashton is at her best, funniest and most harrowing depicting Joy’s complete rejection of her pregnancy and its obvious result. Throughout this tortuous ordeal, various women enter Joy’s office. They usually do so without knocking, and each of these “visits” mildly annoys or totally shocks Joy depending on whether it’s a cleaning woman (Sharon Hope), a co-worker (Nicole Lewis), a babysitter (Shay Vawn), somebody else’s daughter (Blasina Olowe) or others (Stephanie Berry, Cherene Snow). Joy doesn’t recognizes these women until she realizes, or fantasizes, that each of them is a relative from her village back in East Africa.
It’s a surreal concept masterfully presented by Ashton, White and the actors, especially Tseggai, who weaves enormous humor into her tragic free-fall from corporate success.
Ashton occasionally resorts to clichés, including one leitmotif that’s very fin-de-siecle in a Carrie Bradshaw sort of way. Thinking of her home across the world, Joy tells the visiting women, “But recently all my shoes hurt. I want to run barefoot. Make footprints in that red soil that doesn’t wash out. Dance.” Ashton turns Joy’s sexy footwear into such a big deal that we get the impression she might be able to lay off drugs if only she solved her addiction to high-heel shoes.
More subtle are the ways in which Ashton reveals Joy’s reasons for leaving her home — where bad water sickens children and soldiers turn women into sex slaves. Much of this background comes from the women when they’re not in the office with Joy but instead in Africa. They form a chorus that Ashton’s script calls The Flourish, and each takes her turn saying and sharing lines like “sun is coming up/ moon’s going down/ sun kills the moon/ where do the days go?/ in to the cracks/ in the earth?/ deeper/ how many more? How many more nights?/ we tell again/ i don’t want to tell today/ we tell again,” and so on.
Despite the lead character’s traumas, it’s often a relief to leave these women and get back into the office with Joy where the attempt at being poetic is less pronounced. Unfortunately, another cliché is Daniel Soule’s scenic design for that office. It’s a glass box, and sure enough, it spins around before the play is over. A glass box box visually signals isolation, just as it has in a dozen of other recent stage productions.