Violence and Female Genital Mutilation Onstage in Charlene James’ Cuttin’ It
There has been a lot of fuss surrounding recent Sarah Kane revivals in the United Kingdom and a debate around the depiction of onstage violence against women in plays written and/or directed by women. Given this context, I wondered, how award-winning playwright Charlene James’ new work, Cuttin’ It, about female genital mutilation, would confront such a dark, culturally sensitive, and urgent subject? The answer is through focusing on memory and trauma, rather than exploring the potential for brutal onstage dramatics. Cuttin’ It, sensitively directed by Gbolahan Obisesan, played the Young Vic through June 11, 2016, and will now move to Birmingham Repertory Theatre, the Royal Court Theatre, Latitude Festival, Sheffield's Crucible Theatre, and The Yard Theatre.
James was compelled to write Cuttin’ It after watching a Channel Four documentary about female genital mutilation (FGM), a practice that removes all or some of the female genitalia which is believed necessary in some cultures to control women’s sexual urges. James views FGM as a taboo subject where people are not “allowed to have the conversations needed” particularly in communities within the UK, perpetuating an “us” versus “them” situation by insisting that the problem must be dealt with inside the cultural groups who practice it, rather than by society as a whole. But if moves are being made to make FGM part of a bigger, global conversation on violence and attitudes towards women, then Cuttin’ It is certainly part of this movement.
But if moves are being made to make FGM part of a bigger, global conversation on violence and attitudes towards women, then Cuttin’ It is certainly part of this movement.
The play tells the story of two fifteen-year-old Somali girls whose journeys through life have been markedly different. Muna, born in Kismaayo, Somalia, was raised in England since age three, while Iqra, who was born in the same city, didn’t move to England until she was ten, might become good friends when they meet through a chance encounter on a bus. Innocent looking and wearing the hijab, Iqra’s childishness compliments Muna’s waywardness and streetwise attitude. While also a practicing Muslim, Muna does not conform to any dress code—she is as outspoken as Iqra is demure and as challenging and provocative as Iqra is passive. But despite their chemistry, both girls hide a secret towards which their attitudes are so polarized it eventually splits them apart.
Muna has a sister just turning seven whom she fears will be “cut” by the elders in the Somali community (just like she was) and she turns to Iqra for support and understanding, presuming that she will share her belief. But Iqra believes in the sanctity of the practice, links it with Islam despite Muna’s (correct) counter argument that the Qur'an does not advocate FGM. The tragic events at the play’s end make it likely that Muna and Iqra will never be friends.
So little is known about FGM, so little is it spoken about by women within cultures that don't practice it that I assumed that the impulse would be for James and Obisesan to shock Western audiences by illustrating the different types of FGM onstage. Not so, says James, who resists making a spectacle of women’s bodies. For her, it is the “psychological” effects that are important. For Obisesan too it is the trauma that is “inherent in some of the young girls’ memories” that must take center stage. Joanna Scotcher’s set design, with a “cut” from top to bottom splitting the stage in half is there to support “the potency of what Charlene’s written.”
Although there is no violence onstage, James’ writing does not pull any punches. The violence comes through evocation and memory, prompted by the senses. Smell in particular acts as a horrific trigger for Muna, taking her back to the time of her own cutting. “Charlene’s writing seems like it is written testimonials from each of the characters’ perspectives,” says Obisesan. The force of James’ writing brings a kind of authenticity, replete with its own violence, that anything shown on stage could not match.
For example, the ways Muna and Iqra use language is somehow symbolic of what has been done to them and how they have each absorbed, processed and explained their experiences. The contrast between their modalities of expression is violent. Tsion Habte as Iqra delivers her narrative in an almost deadpan commentary style as she slowly reveals that she helps women within the Somali Community (a euphemism for being a cutter or assisting) and recalls the brutal murdering of her family back in Somalia. Wide-eyed, detached, Habte significantly reveals the traumas Iqra has unconsciously managed to oppress and explain away to herself. Adelayo Adedayo’s delivery as Muna, in contrast, is almost lively and rhythmic:
So I hot foot it.
Jessica Ennis it.
Still lookin’ pretty as
I quick- step the pavement
with the belief I’m gonna make it.
The lines aren’t written in the play as verse but Obisesan and Adedayo try to make real their poetic potential, only for the momentum to be cut short by James in the next few lines. This happens over and over. At first, it feels like a mistake. One wants Adedayo to fly with the text. Until one realizes that Muna cannot fly—her wings are clipped. At the back of her mind is the trauma of what has been done to her and how she is constantly reminded of it—“Wettin’ the bed at fifteen ‘cause my own body’s out of my control.”
The girls’ views are so diametrically opposed that at times it is easy to forget they follow the same religion and are from the same country. Obisesan solves this by staging a scene where each girl prays at the same time. Though this was not written in the stage directions, Obidesan thinks it helps convey that neither girl is “more conservative or religious than the other, they are still two fifteen-year-old girls of Somali extraction living in London and embedded within their cultural traditions.” The setting of the play is critical—it is plain the two girls are Londoners, eating, living, studying and praying in London’s mosques, rather than in an African developing country.
As the play runs towards to its tragic ending, not only is a friendship ruined but, so too, in all likelihood, is Muna’s relationship with her mother. Watch any video testimony of an FGM survivor and you will see an erosion of trust between mother and daughter. Scotcher’s set is not just a cut, it is womblike and hides deep crevices and caverns that falsely promise security and warmth. No one likes to think of the mother as being anything other than protective. Anything that subverts the role of mother is little explored on our stages. We never see Muna’s mother, but she feels alien and this makes the experience of her, evoked by Muna, more uncomfortable. James is not in the game of restraining herself or making what she is writing about palatable for a niche audience. It is to James’ credit, though, that Muna’s mother does not become the “monstrous woman” that dominates so much of Western Art. She’s devious and cunning, but it is plain she loves her daughters, although Muna’s attitude towards her is dominated by the ambivalence you may expect.
Rather than sensationalizing FGM onstage, Cuttin’ It takes a more sophisticated approach. It illustrates the trauma the practice inflicts on people’s bodies, on their families and future relationships: this, after all, is the real, unseen violence.
No one attempts to explain away what any of the female characters do by insinuating that they are not well and that’s fresh and welcome. Along with Iqra’s unrelated Aunt (the cutter) with whom we are also invited to empathize when we understand that she too has witnessed horrifying events, we are asked to see the women as fully rounded human beings. FGM is looked at as being, as Obisesan says, a “violent practice legitimized through social conditioning.” James’ play still shocks and the violence of what happens enters you like a haunting reek and never leaves. Rather than sensationalizing FGM onstage, Cuttin’ It takes a more sophisticated approach. It illustrates the trauma the practice inflicts on people’s bodies, on their families and future relationships: this, after all, is the real, unseen violence.