Voices of the Motherland: In Conversation with Zakia Sewell and Amey St Cyr
The bond between mother and child is one of the most natural and profound relationships we can experience. But for Zakia Sewell and her mother – who she’s always called Amey – this relationship has been far from straight-forward.
After many years of disconnection and words unspoken, they collaborated on a new creative work to better understand the issues they have had to overcome. Directed by theatremaker Cathy Sloan, Voices of the Motherland lies in a space between performance, theatre and curated conversation. In their piece the mother and daughter touch on mental health, ancestral trauma, as well as the kindness of self-care and self-knowledge and exploring the healing that accompanies it.
Voices of the Motherland has only been publicly performed once, in a scratch debut for Get Up Stand Up Now x Somerset House Studios’ Dreaming / Diasporas in 2019. Development and a series of performances were planned for 2020 at The Playground Theatre and for Free Word’s How To Be Kind season. With two novel coronavirus lockdowns coinciding, these couldn’t go ahead. Despite these setbacks, the content and themes explored have had a remarkable life this year in other iterations, including discussions between Zakia and Amey on NTS, and the documentary My Amey and Me on BBC Radio 4.
Here Zakia and Amey discuss the process of their collaboration, its future, and the transformative effect it had on both their thinking and relationship.
Photo credit © Anne Tetzlaff
Zakia: How did you find the process of developing Voices of the Motherland?
Amey: I found it brought up so many different emotions. It was joyful, it was sad and it was quite tricky in places as well. What I could never have foreseen was how exhausting the rehearsals would be. There was a huge amount of emotional labour required to keep the piece ‘real’ and authentic.
Amey: I found that there was mental, physical and mostly emotional labour involved while making the piece. Did you feel that, too?
Zakia: Yes, I did. When we first began putting it together we were talking about really difficult subjects, which we hadn’t spoken about before. I had to go back into some painful memories, think about how your illness had affected me, and then share it with you! It was uncomfortable at times.
Each time we were rehearsing and recording for the radio programme I’d return to that very vulnerable space. It was affirming and healing but at times exhausting too. I remember we’d always be super knackered after a one-hour rehearsal, wondering why we were so tired. Looking back I can see why.
Amey: There was a fine line between being able to perform, but at the same time we were not ‘acting’. How did you negotiate that?
Zakia: I found it a bit tricky! I’m not an actor by trade, and I didn’t feel very comfortable when it started to feel like I had to ‘act’. To have to go through those real emotions and real conversations each time, without any kind of poetic distance, was a bit difficult. A lot of the piece is improvised, but we had a general sense of how the conversations would go. This meant that there was room for spontaneity and for new things to come up, but with a safety in knowing where the conversation was going. I remember after our first performance of the material in Somerset House, somebody asked me, ‘was that a true story?’ — which I found quite interesting. I’d thought it was obvious that it was!
Zakia: Were you apprehensive before going public about having schizophrenia?
Amey: I didn’t find going public about it particularly difficult. I’ve spoken about it many times before, in different settings. I don’t make a secret of the fact that I’ve had a couple of nervous breakdowns, or ‘breakthroughs’ as I like to call them. Without my ‘breakthroughs’ I wouldn’t be the person I am today.
And I like who I am today. So, no regrets.
Photo credit © Anne Tetzlaff
Zakia : Do you feel that there’s still shame and stigma around mental health?
Amey: I feel that there is still a lot of shame and stigma around mental illness. I recently read a news story about a woman who had murdered a child. It’s a very sad story, the woman was paranoid schizophrenic. It’s very unfortunate. The only time you ever hear about anyone schizophrenic in the news is when there has been a tragedy. This can create an atmosphere of fear around people with mental illness.
You never hear about schizophrenics like me, who have recovered really well and are living normal lives. I think things are slowly improving; people in the public eye are ‘coming out’ about their struggles with mental illness. Their candidness can encourage everyone else to be more open, too.
There has been much discussion around anxiety and depression, but there needs to be more of a conversation about bipolar and schizophrenia.
Amey: Why was it so important to present aspects of Voices of the Motherland with the correct tone? How did you achieve that? What is the right tone?
Zakia: I think we were both conscious of wanting to get the balance right between dark and light – between the heavier material and the humour in the piece. The themes it explores — mental health, trauma, slavery, loss — are quite deep and we didn’t want people to go away feeling drained and upset.
It felt important to have a bit of a laugh too, where appropriate. It’s particularly powerful when you tell the story of the first time you heard voices: there’s a kind of dark humour in the way you tell it that makes it even more moving, in a way.
Amey: The piece was about a particular stage in our relationship, which has now passed. We weren’t able perform because of COVID-19. If we were to revisit it what would you change?
Zakia: It’s an interesting point. In a way, because working on the piece was so transformative, and the dynamic between us is different from when we first started developing it, I do wonder whether it would almost feel like we were going backwards.
I feel the difference now would be that we might have a greater emotional distance when performing. Perhaps it wouldn’t be quite as raw, probably making it a bit more sustainable as a performance piece in the long-term! I’m not quite sure what I’d change though… actually, making the radio documentary accompaniment was quite inspirational. There could be a few motifs from that which could feed back into the show, like the wordplay. That could be cool!
Photo credit © Anne Tetzlaff
Zakia: Do you feel that working on Voices of the Motherland has changed our relationship in any way?
Amey: I feel it has brought me closer to you. While working on the piece I think we allowed each other space to say stuff that needed to be said. Being creative together was so therapeutic.
The whole process was pretty intense and I feel like I got to know you better. It was good to get your perspective on events from our past, and to see things from your point of view. For a very long time it had all been about me and my illness, so it was great that you had a chance to voice things about our relationship from your perspective. And for me to hear and take on board what you had to say.
Zakia: If we were to start the work from scratch today, is there anything you’d do differently?
Amey: If I were able to start creating the piece from scratch I wouldn’t change a thing. The whole process was so fruitful and positive, it has brought us to a really good place in our relationship. I’m really grateful for the opportunity to be creative with you.
Amey: Did creating the piece have a lasting effect on the way you relate to me?
Zakia: I think working with you has definitely brought us closer together. It created a space in which we could explore the wounds of the past, but create something new out of them. It’s like that idea of alchemy – transforming ‘base’ or ‘dark’ matter into gold. I think for a long time I felt I had to protect you from how your illness had affected me. Now that’s been shared, there’s more of an open channel between us, definitely. And seeing how our bravery, in facing up to our difficult shared history, has moved and inspired others – that’s quite a magical thing to have achieved together!
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In this BBC Radio 4 documentary, Zakia Sewell and her mother Amey St Cyr are working on a theatre piece together, exploring their relationship, issues of motherhood, mental health and ancestral trauma.
Watch My Amey and Me documentary: My Amey and Me