THE NIGHT WOMAN
THE PIT: Barbican Centre
Writer, Director, Performer
Thu 19—Sat 21 Oct 2023
21 October, 2023
all images © Chadley Larnelle
In darkness, there is light. In blackness, there is beauty. And when we embrace our identity, we embrace our history, knowledge, and power. Walking away from Julene Robinson's The Night Woman is a sobering experience, and as I walked up from The Pit at the Barbican Centre, I was left with a slew of thoughts and emotions.
It's impossible to put into words the power that is etched in every second of The Night Woman. The opening sequence is darkness itself, with a short introduction by an unseen voice. The darkness remains in place, long past a time that one is comfortable with, and you can feel the audience begin to fidget as the voice continues to lay the scene. It is a brave opening that few artists would attempt; it forces one to listen, to straighten up, and to focus. When Robinson comes onto the stage for the first time, she’s lit by this warm, orange/red light from the side, creating this sticking and unimaginably powerful image. Moving across the stage at a slow but determined pace, her voice is soul-awakening and feels like a rallying cry.
Lighting, sound, and music are all intertwined with Robinson’s text, which is, at times, poetically delivered, creating a rhythm that really transfixes you. Everything has a purpose and a meaning, and every action, small or large, conveys a message that may be interpreted in ten different ways by ten different people. The Night Woman is split into three narratives of three very different Black women: a young Black woman who is drawn from Robinson’s own family experience, "The Night Woman", and a manifestation of her beloved Grandmother.
There is a struggle within the first woman, a struggle to understand her identity and to find the pride, honour, and joy that are embedded in a culture and tradition she seems alien to or afraid of. For this woman, darkness and blackness are fears that have been given to her and told to her; the messages and experiences are that blackness is wrong and celebrating this is to be punished. We find ourselves wrapped in our blackness, which fills us with shame, confusion, doubt, and mistrust. As Robinson utters the words, “Who wants midnight as a skin?” it’s not just the words that hit you hard; it's the actions we witness Robinson take. It is difficult to love oneself when you perceive you are feared and have been othered, and it’s hard to appreciate how far and deep your roots go in any given social, creative, or political sphere.
Where does this fear of darkness—of our blackness—come from? This is a thread that is weaved throughout the piece, and it has multiple meanings, from our own fear or connection to our blackness and what it stands for to society's fear of that very blackness. At the start of The Night Woman, Robinson talks about her grandmother, who was an Obeah woman. Much time is given to her grandmother, her history, and the meaning behind Obeah traditions, which have their roots in Africa. In 1760, practicing Obeah was made illegal across the British-colonised Caribbean, and it’s here that we, as an audience, begin to see the beginning of this ‘fear’ of the darkness, the unknown, and the blackness, the real identity of the African diaspora now in the Caribbean. Persons forced into servitude are also forced to relinquish their identity—this sense of who they are. By passing laws, chipping away at this identity, and making people afraid to celebrate and appreciate who they are, this fear that has been manufactured latches itself onto our modern subconscious.
"Black women throughout history exemplify this unique sense of strength, power, and determination that continues to inspire."
One of the most urgent moments comes when the audience gets to meet the "Night Woman" herself, and she is also confused about where this fear comes from. Robinson’s words are intricately written and delivered, with this moment being a pivotal rhetorical exchange with the audience. It’s a moment steeped in religion and history, and as the Night Woman quotes from Psalm 23:4—The LORD is My Shepherd—she illustrates beautifully how intertwined the darkness is in our lives and how it was never something to be feared or afraid of; instead, it was something to walk towards and embrace.
In the beginning, there was only darkness, and there will always be darkness; this is the origin of life. This has always been the origin of life. As The Night Woman continues to unfold, we become privy to an unfiltered honouring of Black women, givers of life, purveyors of legacy, wisdom, and fortitude. Black women throughout history exemplify this unique sense of strength, power, and determination that continues to inspire. Black women have their identity usurped, attacked, diminished, and dismantled by structured legacies that fear them; they always fear those who sacrifice so much. By coming back to her Grandmother, Robinson has been able to forge a reconnection with this essential history that has allowed her to understand her Grandmother’s legacy and what it means for her future.
It is when we meet the Grandmother, the great Obeah, that a message within a message (possibly within another message) is relayed to the great-granddaughter. Love. When you have love and when you are loved, nothing can keep you shackled. At the start of the play, as Robinson walks onto the stage, there is a black rope tightly wrapped around her arm, and at one point, Robinson removes the rope from her left arm and ties it to her right arm. In these moments, we hear frustration, anger, and fear, and the ropes perhaps represent how even now Black women are shackled and held down by a societal fear of them. Through this early part, Robinson is constantly toying and wrapping this black, knotted rope around her body. The message from her Grandmother is a simple one: no matter the pain you’re put through or the horrors you have to endure through whatever jealousy or cruelty might exist, always keep love in your heart. With this, you can never be broken, and with this, they can never take away your beauty, your blackness, or your indelible identity that comes from centuries of ancestors.
In creating The Night Woman, Robinson has crafted a story that is not only visually breathtaking, but through the delicate poetry, a complex story emerges. These three Black women form a triangle that unpacks this narrative in a way that leaves you feeling a much deeper connection to each other. Robinson is a performer who isn’t just able to truly capture her audience but uniquely weaves a story that is as beautiful as it is salient. The Night Woman is as much a journey of self-discovery and acceptance as it is about the importance of understanding where and who you have come from.