Review: My Mother Runs in Zig-Zags – ‘incredibly refreshing and ambitious’

An all-BAME cast and crew production, My Mother Runs in Zig-Zags powerfully explores civil war, intergenerational trauma and the diasporic experience.

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5 young women stand on stage, three in the foreground, two in the background, dressed in dark coloured clothes. The three in the foreground raise their right hands to their heads
Photographer: Eddie Atonga

Coming off the success of their last show Talaash, Coriander Theatre returns with another all-BAME cast and crew production. Written and directed by Simran Uppal and Zad El Bacha, My Mother Runs in Zig-Zags incorporates elements of El Bacha’s previous play, On Death Etcetera.

My Mother Runs in Zig-Zags centres on a conversation between two friends (Iqra Mohamed and Shekinah Opara) in a kitchen which has an incessant leaky pipe. After they both call their mothers to figure out how best to deal with this issue, the narrative then expands to recollections of the Lebanese Civil War. When recalling these memories, the boundaries between physical space and time collapse, as we are transported to a war-torn Beirut at the height of the civil war.

Though this was a clever narrative arrangement, at times it felt disjointed and difficult to follow; as a result, when Mohamed announced at the end of the play that she was in fact going back home for Eid, this decision felt rather abrupt. Nevertheless, the play succeeded in its exploration of themes, particularly intergenerational trauma. This underpinned the play and it was clear that both daughters had been affected by and bore the weight of inherited trauma. I found the discussion of how migrant families can often romanticise painful stories as a way of dealing with that trauma particularly compelling.

Given the extraordinary lasting effects of both the Lebanese and Nigerian Civil War, I could not help but think that there was more that could have been explored within these narratives. This was mostly true for the development of the narrative of Opara’s character, who merely stated her parents’ inability to speak about the Biafran War. Although it may have been a pointed decision of the directors to only mention the Biafran War in passing, as someone whose parents lived through it, the lack of development felt to me like a massive oversight within the script. Mohamed’s dialogue, on the other hand, was more developed, and she effortlessly explored her grandmother and mother’s memories and anecdotes of the Lebanese Civil War.

Considering the fact that for both Opara and Mohamed these were their first major acting roles, their confidence and instinct on stage was incredible to watch. With their naturalistic style of delivery, they involved the audience in the story and I couldn’t help but laugh during some of the exchanges between the two friends. The staging helped to reinforce this intimate atmosphere, with Mohamed and Opara often facing and speaking directly to the audience, thus blurring the line between the actors and audience. This production also made great use of the space at The North Wall, with luggage, hanging car bumpers and a fridge strewn across the stage. The set conveyed the two worlds the characters were straddling, effectively capturing the domestic life of many immigrant families with a visual illustration of how two distinct cultures can coexist.

The highlight of this play was undoubtedly its merging of music and contemporary dance, which showcased the diverse range of talents within the cast.  Dancers and choreographers Esther Agbolade, Kalyna El Kettas and Jesryna Patel were particularly captivating, and they powerfully explored the hardening effects of war by rapidly switching between the roles of playful children and armed soldiers. Joliff Seville’s original music score also nicely complemented El-Bacha’s and Uppal’s lyrical writing. Admittedly, however, the mixture of the live music, movement from the chorus, dance and spoken word was at times overpowering, and sometimes it was difficult to hear the evocative spoken word (delivered melodically by Michael Akodeji-Johnson).

All in all, My Mother Runs in Zig-Zags is an incredibly refreshing and ambitious piece of theatre. A year on from Medea (Oxford’s first all BAME cast and crew production) and as the first show funded by the Oxford BAME Drama Society, it is heart-warming to know that a clear legacy has now been established when it comes to Oxford student productions promoting diversity.

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