Why are these five women in the same play? A prostitute in Amsterdam; a mother from Guatemala; a sister from the Midwest; a food vendor in the Central African Republic; an international celebrity. The title attempts to explain: “Phantom Pain.” In this Canadian play from Sky Theater by Lennora Esi, which was part of this year’s Edinburgh Fringe Festival and is still available to watch online, each woman has suffered a trauma. But the traumas are as different as the women.
What they most have in common is that they are all portrayed by Esi herself, who also dances and sings and recites poetry in-between the monologues. All five characters are fictional, we’re told, but all based on actual accounts. Each of the stories is intriguing enough – important enough – to deserve its own play. Indeed, each would probably be better by itself.
Amina was 15 years old and growing up in a small village in the country of Moldova, she tells us eight years later, when a slightly older teenager told her she had work for her in a café in Turkey. “I did not want to work on a farm for the rest of my life,” she says,
But the job was a ruse. When she arrived, two men said she had to pay them back for the plane ticket – and the way she had to pay them back was to become a prostitute. “They use the term human trafficking, but there’s nothing human about it….you’re a product.” She eventually escaped — but only literally.
Sophia’s husband was killed by a gang in their hometown in Guatemala, and she escaped with her two young children over the border – only to be arrested, stuck in a “cage,” and separated from her children. She is now in a detention center in Port Isabel, Texas, and has been on a hunger strike along with her “brave sisters” for 16 days.
Minnie sits in an attic, sifting through a shoebox full of snapshots, reminiscing about, and to, her absent brother. “I always thought you looked so handsome in that uniform. Now I feel like it just makes you look like something you’re not. Then again who knows … seems like there were many things I didn’t know about you.”He changed when he joined the army, and then, when he came back, he committed suicide, without leaving a note. She decided to find out why.
While 13-year-old Zakia was selling her mother’s bread in the market, she was raped by UN “peacekeepers…They do not care if it is a white man from France or a black man from Rwanda. As long as he is wearing a blue helmet he can do whatever he wants.”
Zakia offers a graphic account of the attack. Then, she tells us, she walked home. “It can be done. You manage like one does when you lose a limb. You know it is over, you know it is gone, but you still feel the pain.”
One can argue that three of these four women are united by gender-based atrocities – and all four by acts of violence and violation that are technically in the past, but that (like a lost limb) the women still can feel. But what are we to make of the inclusion of Kelly, whose story takes up more time than the others? She attempts several times to dictate into her smart phone the start of her memoir – in which we learn she has been a star for two decades, since the age of eight — ending each attempt with “delete,” then chatting with a girlfriend, her agent, her mom, then trying a new beginning for her memoir. (Did I detect a Kardashian accent?) She knows she has it good; she also feels she can’t win. “I’ve had nails scrape my skin, hands pull my hair and bodies block my way and yet they call me arrogant for wanting to stay clear of fans.” She’s anxious; she takes drugs. “I should have nothing to complain about. I live the life. The glamor. The awards. The parties. The sex. And I come home and wish for nothing more than to be normal.”
Esi is an immensely talented artist, switching accents and appearances with each new monologue so effectively it takes a moment to register that these are all the same actress (The same is true of her singing and dancing.) “Phantom Pain” is surely trying to make a point – about the widespread oppression of women, the universality of loss, the processing of pain across cultures. But it’s not just the inclusion of the celebrity that gave me pause. If the characters have processed their pain, and have gained insight into it, they don’t much share this with us – their monologues are taken up almost entirely with the story of what happened. We ourselves don’t get much time to process these atrocities. Esi’s approach – her decision to tell the disparate, often horrific stories of five women together one after the other within a single hour – yields two unfortunate side effects. One, despite her low-key delivery, is the feeling that the stories at times creep closer to titillation than enlightenment. The other is that “Phantom Pain” feels as if it’s serving, disproportionately, as a showcase for Esi’s talents, almost as if she’s auditioning (Look at all the characters I can play!)
Her talents merit a showcase. But these women she has brought to life also need to be heard on their own.