There are a lot of warnings that greet you as you walk into Diana Nneka Atuona’s debut play, Liberian Girl. You’ll be standing for 90 minutes, alongside child soldiers wielding replica guns and if you’re not up in the gallery, you’ll be on the stage, gruffly moved around by the actors. Liberian Girl is the story of Martha, a 14 year-old girl who disguises herself as a boy in an attempt to survive the sudden horror unleashed on her unassuming village by Charles Taylor’s Small Boys Units.
In a stunning professional stage debut by Juma Shankara, Martha forces herself to perform the mandatory masculinity they demand. She learns to dominate, to ridicule and crucially, to conform. With her breasts tied down and her hair cut short, in one particularly unnerving scene, she finds herself being told to rape another girl or risk being found out.
To survive, she becomes an oppressor and joins the company of teenagers trained to be menacing. Martha makes necessary friendships with soldiers who’ve assigned themselves the names Killer and Double Trouble. Both characters are played flawlessly by Valentine Olukoga and Michael Ajao respectively. Their fierce interaction and childlike chumminess fills the gaps when Diana’s script feels lacking, as it does on the few occasions it leaves you wondering, what am I meant to understand from this ugliness?
Although Liberian Girl can feel like a veritable conveyer belt of trauma, it also feels as though it’s born of an acute awareness of the intricacies of domination and resilience. Key to these are Diana’s depictions of people who flee.
Her play begins by establishing the routines of village life. Martha’s grandmother (Cecilia Noble) has been raising her and now it’s almost Martha’s turn to go to the “bush school,” where she’ll spend months away from friends and family, experiencing a rite of passage for females in her tribe. Taylor’s boys arrive before she can ‘become a woman’ in this sense and so Martha’s journey to adulthood takes a painful detour.
Before this, there’s a conversation between Martha’s grandmother and another villager, Amos (Fraser James), that reveals the pain of uncertainty and what an impossible bind they’re all in. If she leaves, where will she go, what will she take, what will become of the foundations she’s so carefully laid over the years? Images of forced migration are so ubiquitous they can become normalised. But this scene completely wrecked those binary pictures of either panic or pragmatism in the face of catastrophe. It also pushes the audience to consider the links between fear, a lack of stability and domination by the likes of the Small Boys Units.
Anna Fleischle’s design coupled with Matthew Dunster’s direction doubles its impact. The set allows space for the audience in a gallery section towards the back and on either side when you enter but most of us are stood standing amidst the action. The actors (still in character) order us about when we’re in their way and you’re guaranteed to find yourself right up close to the confrontation unfolding. It forces you to forget any assumptions of consistency. You’re to move at a moment’s notice and whether you like it or not, you’ll be in the spotlight if the action decides to come to you. We have little ownership of the space or our journey through it and, vividly, we feel it.