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Review: Unknown Rivers, at Hampstead Theatre

Chinonyerem Odimba’s unflinching play explores the challenges faced by ethnic minority women in predominantly white British society

21 November, 2019 — By Catherine Usher

Aasiya Shah (Lune), Renee Bailey (Lea) and Nneka Okoye (Nene) in Unknown Rivers. Photos: Robert Day

EXPLORING the hopes, fears and friendship of three London girls, Unknown Rivers gives an unflinching account of how it feels to be an ethnic minority woman growing up in a predominantly white British society.

Although Doreene Blackstock as Nene’s mum Dee gives a very moving performance, the show’s highlights come from the interaction between the trio of friends, old and new.

Aasiya Shah’s Lune is a charismatic and witty character, wonderfully portrayed by Shah, who imposes herself on Nene (Nneka Okoye) and Lea (Renee Bailey) initially, but quickly convinces them to enjoy and value her company.

As a young Asian lesbian, she shares the pair’s feelings of vulnerability and exclusion, and burns with a similar resentment at being patronised and pigeonholed.

The story will resonate with anyone who feels like they’re swimming against the tide of normality.

At times, the young women’s complaints about the way they are perceived are simply shocking.

Nneka Okoye in Unknown Rivers

When Lea describes office colleagues failing to ask about what she did the previous night because “Of course, I was sitting around eating chicken and chatting street or twerking,” this generates nervous laughter among the audience at such blatant stereotyping.

Fighting against the ingrained image of the “strong black woman”, Nene and Lea in particular explore their frequent feelings of helplessness.

Playwright Chinonyerem Odimba seeks to celebrate the longstanding friendship between the pair, but also sympathetically highlights their obvious struggles and how they support each other.

Nene, who is seemingly agoraphobic, clearly has many problems, but at times she’s contrastingly positive and carefree. The story emphasises that all four characters have their strengths and weaknesses as they navigate their daily lives.

Ultimately a sense of hope prevails, but the focus is on their diverse personalities and the frequently challenging experiences that have shaped them.

Until December 7
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