STARS: An Afrofuturist Space Odyssey @ The ICA

STARS: An Afrofuturist Space Odyssey, by Mojisola Adebayo, is a spellbinding journey exploring space, identity, and female sexuality.

I have been to the ICA multiple times, but I have never attended a play there, and this was a fantastic first time. As I entered, the stage layout was similar to the traditional end-on staging, but with some key differences. One was the DJ booth left of stage, which provides the soundscape by Debo Adebayo which permeates throughout the entire production. Sofas and cushions were embedded into the ground of the front rows, signalling an alternative theatre experience, prioritising comfort and familiarity over custom. The set itself was a picture of domesticity – a table, chair, fridge; but with an illuminated sideways doorframe and an oval spaceship shaped stage designed by Miriam Nabarro. Clear, that all was not as mundane as it appeared.

Debra Michaels as Mrs – Image Credit: Ali Wright

STARS: An Afrofuturist Space Odyssey follows ‘Mrs‘, played powerfully by Debra Michaels, who starts her journey with what appears to be a routine GP appointment where she reveals that she is searching for what she has never experienced before – an orgasm. Rather than using this as a source of bawdy humour, the 90 minute runtime (directed by Gail Babb and S. Ama Wray) weaves through the life of Mrs, travelling back and forth in time to uncover what has led to this point. Newly widowed, we discover that Mrs was in a loveless marriage, forced into cohabiting with the man who sexually assaulted her as a teenager, as life did not provide her with any other option. STARS also divulges into her religious trauma, portraying an attempted exorcism from an Evangelical sect Mrs was once part of, conducted after she confided in a fellow member about her same-sex attraction.

Debra Michaels as Mrs – Image Credit: Ali Wright

While it is (primarily) a one-woman show, Adebayo and Michaels work in tandem to bring multiple characters to life, each divulging into a part of the female experience. The Mrs’ primary companion is ‘Maryam‘, a young Muslim girl who goes by ‘Mary‘ in her Catholic school, as “it is easier to be a Mary than a Maryam”. While their friendship is a source of light, easing the loneliness Mrs faces in her old age, a rift arises when it is revealed that Maryam has been forced into undergoing female genital mutilation (FGM). Here, we see further suppression of female sexuality, where the expression of such is surgically removed in the name of “tradition”. It is heartbreaking to see the justification Maryam gives for the operation, comparing herself to the “smooth” plastic doll gifted to her by her family as a prize for enduring the procedure.

Another friendship that Mrs has is with ‘Maxi‘, who provides another perspective on sexual expression. Maxi is intersex, or as she would say, “too right I’m into sex!”. Her parents, rather than altering her body, embraced their daughter for who she was, railing against the pressure of doctors who sought to place her into a normative gender binary. As Mrs says, the Latin word for shame and the female genitals are one and the same, “pudenda”. With Maxi we are provided the freedom and joy that can lie in turning this upside down.

DJ Michael Manners: Bradley Charles – Image Credit: Ali Wright

In some ways, STARS is a love letter to science fiction. Mrs is an avid fan of Star Trek, and is signing up to travel to space on the ‘Spexit’ programme – a tounge in cheek satirisation of the political policy in the UK that brought us Brexit and the Windrush programme. Perhaps one of the most unique elements of the show comes from the description of the Noomo and the projected animations by Candice Purwin that depict them. The Noomo are hermaphrodite creatures with scales and flesh, first discovered by Intergalactic Africans to reside in the Sirius star system. The Noomo are not conjured by Adebayo, they come from the mythology of the Dogon religion in Mali. The myth of the Noomo, androgynous and celestial, frames the story, taking us out of the singular room and into the stars. While I was a fan of the projected animation, I found at times the projected play text to be distracting (though it was often played for a clever gag).

While I sometimes got lost in the non-linear narrative, I was eventually guided back in the right track. STARS ended how it began, except this time: Norma Monaghan is on a one way pleasure trip to a place, quite literally, out of this world.

STARS: An Afrofuturist Space Odyssey ran at the Institute of Contemporary Arts until May 4th.


'STARS - An Afrofuturist Oddesy' is a spellbinding journey exploring space, identity, and female sexuality. Punchy, musical, and unrelentingly funny, ‘STARS’ takes us on one woman’s mission to go where she has never gone before.

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70 %
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Sound Quality
80 %
Production Design
70 %
For the Culture
80 %

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