The true story of a Kenyan mother’s battle to ensure an education for her disabled teenage daughter is the focus of Sacrifice, a bold biographical play written and performed by Tina Tieno which is dotted and disorientating in its direction.
Aneno is faced with the devastating prospect of her 14-year-old daughter, Heather, being swept up into an arranged marriage instead of continuing her studies. To challenge such a decision in rural Africa is daunting when patriarchal attitudes around relationships and the restriction of women’s rights lingers in the country, and she has an oppressive husband to deal with. Confidently channelling the strength of her family in her performance, Tieno embodies the calm and measured Aneno – and her erudite, no-nonsense mother – to share how one small act paved the way to call out a harmful tradition, and a damaging status quo.
The confusion lies in Gabrielle Moleta’s handling of the play as director. Character and scene transitions are slow and staggered, while there’s an awkward inconsistency around the presence of other characters in a space. Tieno will address an invisible individual by gazing at one point on the stage, only to become that other character by jumping across to another area of the room altogether.
It’s particularly frustrating when, for one brief moment at the play’s opening, there is an opportunity to establish a sense of space and presence through three small wooden boxes which comprise the set, and yet this isn’t deployed across the whole production. A pair of shoes on stage to symbolise Heather (who we learn later wears prosthetic footwear) is another possible example, but instead we have to rely on where it is that Tieno is looking when delivering her lines.
This also means there are points whereby it is hard to distinguish whether we are listening to Aneno or our narrator, although the narrative Tieno tells us is, in fairness, rich in detail with some powerful and imaginative dialogue. The characterisation of Aneno’s mother with no more than a cigarette “dancing” on her lips is charming, and Aneno’s address to the community towards the end of the play is striking and utterly damning of a practice still in place today.
The personal touch at the core of Sacrifice strengthens this piece, but much tighter direction could really give it the urgency it so rightfully deserves.
Sacrifice is now playing at VAULT Festival until 10 March.
Production Images: Simon Annand.
Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘Sacrifice’ for free in exchange for a review of the performance. I did not receive payment for this article and all opinions stated above are honest and my own.