TBB Talks To… Janet Kumah currently starring in Zawe Ashton’s Play ‘for all the women who thought they were Mad’

“They like to see us fall to slip on branches full of fruit we have not tasted”

for all the women who thought they were Mad (fatwwttwM) is a new play written by Zawe Ashton. Directed by Jo McInnes the production explores the forces that collude and conspire against Black women living in contemporary Britain today.

We spoke to singer/actress Janet Kumah about her role, what the play means to her and the need for our society to continue to explore these themes in depth. We also talk to her about her music and how it has helped her to overcome her own pain…

Tell us about for all the women who thought they were Mad

Swimming, drowning, floating, under the water, doing the motions of ‘getting through-it’ without going anywhere.

for all the women who thought they were Mad highlights the trials and tribulations Black women face in our society, how important is it that productions like this driven by social consciousness are explored?

Black women are a part of society too, so it’s as important to examine, talk and give a platform to our varied experiences. When we don’t give voice, then we go unheard, so it’s very important to the healthy functioning of any society that these conversations be acknowledged in a safe environment and given a platform.

Zawe Ashton has been working on it for some time, how does it feel to be part of its fruition telling these stories for the first time?

It feels good to feel acknowledged, it feels good to be a part of serving this acknowledgment to Black women especially.

The play is running concurrently in America with the London production is there any pressure on who tells the story best?

My understanding is that the over medicalisation of Black women is an issue in the US too, so I think that this would resonate. No, there isn’t any pressure. It means that other actors, directors, creatives, production teams and audiences get to experience the gift that is this piece.

Mina Andala, Joy Elias-Rilwan, Janet Kumah, Jumoke Fashola, Layo-Christina Akinlude and Jennifer Dixon
© Helen Murray

Who is your character, and how did you connect with her in order to bring her to life?

I play Rose, and the trauma of Joy’s death is compounded by Rose’s own history of depression, the consumption of over medicalised prescribed drugs and its side effects. What connected me to her and to the piece was The Flourish in this text – the name given to the 5 women in the play who are part of the ‘telling‘. They are held together by love and each has their own individual experiences with mental trauma.

Do you share any similar experiences with those documented in the paly?

We spoke about grief during the rehearsal process. I don’t think its an experience you overcome, it’s part of the play, part of the force of elements that shape the relationships of the characters in this production.

Reflecting on your acting journey, what has been the most impactful project you’ve worked on so far?

I can definitely place this project up there with the most impactful.

Outside of acting in plays and musicals, you are a singer, releasing your debut album Yellow Flower in 2018, can you tell us about your music and how you came to be an artist?

Oh wow! I was not expecting this question! Yes, I released an album last year. Yellow Flower is a fusion of rocksteady, early ska and vintage soul. It was a work in progress for about 5 years. I spent a lot of time touring and writing with a group in between theatre projects. I wanted to use the time after the group broke up to find my own voice. I felt that I had something in me that I wanted to express but I didn’t know what that was. It was a voyage of discovery and a surprise to find that what neede to be released was my own grief.

I lost my sister some years ago. I thought I’d ‘dealt’ with it (whatever that means), but this album told me differently. Making it was a tearful, joyful, personal and cathartic experience. I like songs that make me dance so my coproducer and I created music with that in mind; the lyrics are melancholic but the music, for the most part, plays against that. I hadn’t initially planned on writing an album; I had these lyrics and melody lines that kept looping itself over and over in my head, it was there when I woke up, it was there when I went in the shower, there when I was at work or crossing the street, and then at night too- it needed an out.

I thought that if I dedicated some time in the studio I could see what came up. Completing the album, singing those songs with a live band and a brass section – it’s a beautiful feeling like you have found a space where you can be “at one” with yourself. You surrender the intellect and get face-to-face with feelings that have been suppressed and continue to be suppressed. That release is my art, it makes me feel vulnerable, exhilarated and excited all at once.

(Yellow Flower is available on iTunes, Spotify, and JAAKMusic.com)

What is your first love, music or acting?

I don’t really think in those binaries. Music and acting are both forms of expression; sometimes I paint with an oil-paint, sometimes I paint with watercolour. I get a tremendous amount of fulfillment, release, and love from both.

After this play run ends what’s next for you?

I guess the nature of this work is that you don’t know what’s happening next. I like the variation of projects and I feel especially fortunate to have worked with rich material that I connect with. The people on a show heavily contribute to the experience of bringing a story to life. I feel humbled to have entered into those spaces with such gifted cast, creatives, production and crew members that contribute to making these spaces safe for everyone. I’d like to carry that ethic and richness of quality forward, into work that’s not afraid to be vulnerable; and different, and challenging; and new both on stage and screen.

How have you celebrated Black History Month?

Black history is the source of my learning and evolvement. It feeds my conversations, it informs my work, it is the authors I read, the interviews I watch, the social media content I consume, the theatre, music, and film I connect and listen to, the organisations I support. Learning doesn’t stop. That is the gift Black history gives to us all.

for all the women who thought they were Mad runs at Hackney Showroom until 9th November. Further information about the play and to book tickets can be found here.


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