Mercy by Zubayr Charles: deep dive into invisible illness

This woman unknown to the strangers watching her, was still. People rushing in and out and obnoxious laughs didn’t cause any part of her to move. The blue light and her shaking hands were what kept me from behaving like those around me. The actress, Ibtisaam Florence, embodied illness more than age. I looked to my right where my grandmother sat and could not help but wonder if she saw her deceased husband in the woman on the stage. It takes great skill to focus on the gentle movement of one’s hand to depict a certain illness. At this point, I had no clue what the illness was (I refrained from obtaining any pre-show knowledge) but it was clear by the stiff placement of her neck, that it was all-consuming.

Mercy, played by, Jennifer Morris, appeared on the stage with the exact gentleness expected of somebody dressed in a nursing outfit. This was just the beginning of a breath-taking performance. With Mercy taking care of aunty Kaashiefah Momsen (Florence) the presumption was that the story line would be focused on her. Mercy expresses interest in the story of aunty Kaashiefah, and we assume that this was nothing less than an act of empathy. Guided by sound effects, we went back in time to meet the children of aunty Kaashiefah . They gathered for lunch at their mother’s house, where aunty still sat with no movement and a blank look in her eyes – astonishingly still sticking to her character while the dialogue became humorous in its true reflection of the family dynamic of many coloured households. Relating to the experiences of the audience, the writer drew our attention to the complex family dynamics that are often dealt with using vulgar language that we have become so accustomed to, we laugh. Zubayr Charles pulls on the audiences’ hearts by causing them to laugh at the extent of which the production is relatable.

Morris plays Mercy with an intricate understanding of schizophrenia, a psychosocial disability that causes the everyday lives of those living with it to jump from one reality to another. Morris introduces us to Mercy’s experience of schizophrenia through her memories of her mother’s schizophrenic behaviour. As the production goes on, Mercy recounts more memories of her late mother, causing her schizophrenic symptoms to intensify. It soon became clear that Mercy’s interest in aunty Kaashiefah was not an act of empathy but her psychosocial disability taking charge. Charles reminds us of the effects of childhood trauma on adults. The production pays tribute to the everyday lives of unprocessed trauma and how it takes on a life of its own. Like many psychosocial disabilities, schizophrenia is often not understood in its extremity by those who don’t live with it themselves or live alongside somebody who does. Through Morris’ portrayal of Mercy, the audience is provided with an opportunity to step into the intimate moments of the daily life of schizophrenia. The audience is left in moments of intrigue discomfort as Mercy’s personality switches: imitating her younger self being given instructions from her mother to kill aunty Kaashiefah. Mercy held a look in her eye that expressed a sort of instability that caused those in her eye view to be filled with fear but with no urge to leave the scene.

As Mercy fell further and further into a schizophrenic episode, our attention was focused on her next move as we hoped to understand the inner workings of her mind. Charles brilliantly executes an imitation of the daily life of an individual living with schizophrenia seen as functional by those around them but a constant whirlwind internally. By starting the production off with the audience’ attention being focused on aunty Kaashiefah (even though Mercy is introduced from the first scene), a woman whose illness is visible, Charles provides emphasis on how physical illness is prioritised. By bringing Mercy’s illness into the spotlight as the play goes on, what is emphasised is the extent of the extremity that psychosocial disabilities must get to, to be noticed.

Mercy by Zubayr Charles tackles issues of family dynamics, old age, and psychosocial disabilities.

Video: JGF News

Kirsten Deane (PEN South Africa) obtained her Honours in English Literature and MA in Creative Writing at the University of the Western Cape. She is working on her first poetry collection, reflecting on living with her physical disability (Left Hemiplegia). Uhlanga Press is interested in publishing this young and brave poet’s work.

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