By Diane Wesh
Mental health has been deemed a taboo topic amongst the black community for years. The term itself is rarely vocalised, and this is due to a number of reasons, including shame and the cultural stigma associated with such conditions.
However, with Jennifer Onyeiwu and Munashe Tapfuya, two prominent black actresses in the Ellerslie Theatrical Society's current production of Proof - there were no topics that were off-limits.
Written by David Auburn in 2000, Proof is an American drama that explores grief, mental health, and family loyalties set in Chicago, Illinois. It follows the journey of four characters: Catherine (Jennifer Onyeiwu) Claire (Munashe Tapfuya) Hal (Eric van de Wydeven); and Robert (Fellis McGuire) and is directed by local theatre veteran Carl Drake.
Onyeiwu, who plays the lead role of Catherine (a twenty-something mathematical genius with a mental illness) explains: "This is a story that you don't get to see a lot in Ellerslie Theatre. Usually what gets played in community theatre are comedies or plays that are safe. Proof is not safe, it's heavy."
While the original characters of the play are all predominantly white, Drake wanted to 'flip the script' and give the audience a different viewpoint of mental health especially as it relates to the black experience.
"The director did not want to change the narrative of black mental health, but rather expand it to be more inclusive and representative of the black story," explains Onyeiwu.
Onyeiwu says that her decision to play the role of Catherine was an easy one to make, especially because she already knew a few of the cast members in the production. She also shared how playing this role challenged her and brought up suppressed memories from her own struggles in the past.
"I've made so many discoveries while playing Catherine," she says. "It has revealed parts of myself that I've been hiding. To have that sense of release has truly allowed me to show up and share my full self."
Our conversation highlighted how various mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety, and bi-polar disorder (amongst others) are stigmatized as weaknesses and how these experiences are often pitted in opposition to the overwhelming and often defining, 'strong black women' narrative.
However, the negative connotation of black mental health -- especially amongst women of color -- is starting to slowly become acknowledged in order to bring needed healing to the black community.
In contrast to Onyeiwu, Munashe Tapfuya, who plays the role of Claire, Catherine's estranged older sister, said that she was attracted to the play for quite different reasons.
"The play was unlike the roles I normally play; however, the way it was presented to me peaked my interest. I'm also at a stage where I want to be challenged and stretched, so I decided to try something new by giving it a shot," explains Tapfuya.
Both Onyeiwu and Tapfuya have experienced depression themselves and their life experiences have allowed them to be able to directly relate to their respective characters.
"I was supposed to be this big pediatrician, but I found myself failing. I had my first full on mental breakdown my second year of college," shares Onyeiwu. "The second year was really dark and I was clinically depressed with a lot of anxiety."
"I would sleep all day, sneak out to get food, so I could avoid talking to people. Saying 'I'm fine' was used as a facade. One day, I was sitting at my brothers graduation and I remember so distinctively thinking I'm never going to graduate. I remember having a very clear thought and I thought if something were to happen to me no one would know."
During that point in her life, Onyeiwu recalled that her family never seemed to fully grasp the weight of her depression and that she had to take initiative and reach out to the right people in order to get the help that she needed.
Tapfuya also opened up about some of the dark moments in her life and how she could directly relate to her character, Claire: "I've had to look after someone who was bipolar, and I also know what it's like to have to grow up fast."
"My mother passed when I was younger and in a sense I had to step up and fit into her role. At a young age, I had to sacrifice my studies to take care of my sister and father, work to pay the bills, and put food on the table for my family. One thing about Claire, is that she is really good at suppressing her emotions and I can easily relate to that."
Despite the challenging experiences Onyeiwu and Tapfuya have endured, both creatives have used these incidents to further their own personal growth and delve deeper into the characters they portray.
It's hard work fighting the enduring 'angry black' or even 'strong black' female narrative, and the lack of support associated with different mental conditions have often siloed many into silence. Reflecting upon her experience in this role, Onyeiwu explains that, ultimately,
"We deserve and have the right to be seen. Our stories are similar and different and amazing. There is strength in vulnerability. Our perception is what matters and we have the right to vocalize our whole stories, our unaltered truths."
It is into this world that Proof takes us - an unflinching, unquestioning look into mental health and challenging the social conventions around maintaining the so-called appropriate behavior. It's a valuable and necessary work of theatre and featuring our strong black women, a perfect opportunity to engage in contemporary drama while supporting black creatives.
All Production images are credited to Lyndon from LK Creative.
Diane Wesh is a multifaceted creative and the proud product of tough Haitian immigrants.
American born and New Zealand based she thrives in cultural communications, building relationships, and storytelling.
To find out more about Diane follow along on her inspiring journey here.