One Mississippi is a hard-hitting verbatim play that explores how the impact of childhood experiences shape men’s adult lives, and the journey it takes them on.
First seen at SMHAF in 2017, the show is now touring Scotland as part of this year’s festival programme. Here, writer Mariem Omari reflects on the show’s five-year journey.
How are you feeling about finally getting to tour this show across Scotland after two years of lockdown? Excited? Nervous?
Excitement combined with relief…! We, the creative team and cast, have been holding on for so long wondering if it was going to happen, that it now feels like we get to collectively exhale. For a couple of the cast, it is the first time they have been back in the rehearsal room since lockdown. So it is wonderful that the One Mississippi SMHAF tour has created that opportunity.
One Mississippi’s characters are a group of men from very different backgrounds – a Muslim, a Sikh, etc – who have all reached crisis point. Can you talk a bit about what they all have in common, and also the differences between these experiences?
They all experienced childhood trauma. All of them were so deeply affected by the harrowing experiences they had growing up, but they just buried them. This then led to different coping mechanisms whether that be self-harm or addiction to prescription or illegal drugs, alcohol, or forms of escapism. They were all from very different cultural and religious backgrounds, but despite those differences, they had similar societal expectations placed on them. There appears to be no real differentiation when it comes to masculinity and its representation in western society, regardless of whether the men are Muslim, Sikh, Catholic or Agnostic.
What made you want to focus on men’s mental health?
It was a combination of two things – my own experience with significant men in my life who had depression; and the high statistics around male suicide. I found the statistics distressing. I wanted to better understand the ‘why?’. Why is the suicide rate so much higher amongst men? And why this age group? There are more and more support services available; more and more open discussion about suicide, and yet the numbers keep going up.
Suicide is also a very sensitive subject to explore on stage. What are the challenges involved in that?
Both the script and Mark Jeary-Fairbairn’s direction are sensitive and nuanced when it comes to the suicide references. We are portraying real men’s stories, which in a way has made it easier to explore on stage, because we are not projecting anything on to them. It is their truth. We got a lot of audience feedback when One Mississippi showcased at SMHAF in 2017, and the overwhelming response was that the play was powerful and honest because it does not shy away from the difficult issues like suicide.
During lockdown this show was adapted into a series of monologues for the BBC. How was that experience for you?
Creating the monologues for BBC Scotland pushed me right out of my comfort zone. It took quite a few weeks to work out how I was going to turn a 30 page script into four 500 word monologues. Working closely with Stephen Barnes, who is the Dramaturg on One Mississippi, we managed to extract the most powerful moments and create the short films for the BBC that were part of Mental Health Awareness Week 2021.
Also, it is one thing to portray these men’s stories on stage, but when they go digital, and on to social media, there is a whole other level of duty of care. People can comment on them, so we needed to make sure all the men were comfortable with that, and in a place where they would not be triggered.
What are you hoping audiences will get out of this show?
There are very few, if any, pieces of verbatim theatre about men and childhood trauma, and none that look at it from a Scottish context. So we hope that audiences will be moved by, and connect with, the characters in One Mississippi, and that that may cause them to think differently about what drives someone to breaking point.
What are you planning next?
Bijli Productions transitioned from a collaboration to a company in 2019, and part of our focus is supporting under-represented communities. We have two community focused projects – the Bijli New Writers Project and We Make The Path – and both these projects will involve some sort of showcase in 2022-23. For me personally, I am navigating the world of memoir, and currently writing the third chapter of a book about my Dad’s family who were all refugees of the Lebanon Civil War. I’m hoping by admitting this here, I now have to finish it…!
One Mississippi tours across Scotland as part of SMHAF 2022 from Saturday 30 April. Find full details and book tickets here.
Tour Dates: Platform, Glasgow (30 April), The Revelator, Glasgow (3 May), Beacon Arts Centre, Greenock (5 May), Assembly Roxy, Edinburgh (6 & 7 May), An Lanntair, Stornoway (10 May), Eden Court, Inverness (11 May), Kirriemuir Town Hall (13 May), The Lemon Tree, Aberdeen (14 May).
Image Credit: Leila Talmadge