Thursday 5th May 2022 at Brixton House.
Reviewer: Maygan Forbes
“Legally blonde, but black”. Rosemary (played by Princess Donough) is your typical type A personality, she has done everything by the book – completed university at a socially acceptable age, kept her rebellious period disciplined and well contained, people pleased and pandered; Rosemary finessed the algorithm of life and stayed on the “correct” path. However, the kicker is that when your primary caregiver is a toxic narcissist, the weight of expectations never lightens. This is a story about the relationship between mother and daughter, and what it means to be on the receiving end of emotional abuse from your mother. Written by Cheryl May Ndione and directed by Simone Watson-Brown, this one woman show perfectly balances the unhealthy dynamics of a mother-daughter relationship that calls into question the idea of standing up for yourself and the boundaries that come under attack.
Growing up in a toxic environment can be incredibly detrimental to your mental health, and it’s something you only become fully aware of as you grow older. Rosemary has been tasked with the job of reading a speech at her mother’s wedding, a proud moment for Rosemary but however her mother made it clear that her involvement was an afterthought. In true Rosemary people pleasing fashion, she wants to perfect her speech and uses the audience as her vehicle for acceptance. Ndione perfectly paints a story of what it is like to have this sudden illuminating moment that you haven’t experienced a normal childhood but still lacking the awareness to create boundaries. Rosemary has moments of introspection, as she reflects on old memories to the audience, she lets us in on the horrific verbal abuse she endured growing up but still longs for acceptance from her mother. Donough presents herself to the audience as if she’s writing her thoughts and feelings in a diary.
For the Love of a Primary Caregiver is wildly relatable and I almost felt as though I was watching a mirror of a very similar life to mine. There were moments I was uncomfortable due to the power of Donough’s acting and her ability to create this illusion of the child that grows up to believe that the fault lies within them and the burgeoning rage that follows. As the play continues, we are watching Rosemary’s mother reject her similarly to what Rosemary has experienced since birth. It’s exhausting to some degree watching the amount of hurt that Rosemary feels, but is shrouded in the false veneer she has crafted as a form of self protection.
Recently I was listening to the podcast Empty Inside with Jeanette McCurdy and Lea Waters, the episode is called Toxic Mothers and in it they talk about their own experiences with abusive mothers and the chord of hope they held to fix the empty void. It’s interesting because Rosemary holds on to this chord of hope, even towards the end she still maintains a belief that there might be a shift. One day there will be a warm and loving, healed dynamic between them. It’s a melancholy feeling that invokes a level of empathy from the audience because we know her mother can’t change, and there will always be hurt and harm in their relationship. The pattern from Rosemary’s childhood is reflecting itself into her adult world and the collusive system of silence that perpetuates the toxicity.
Whilst Rosemary is practicing her speech with the audience she is hilarious. Her sense of humour acts as an armour in a way but also signifies how family members expect children to rise above their abusive parents. It’s a combination of betrayal, neglect and dismissal all in one. What makes For the Love of a Primary Caregiver stand out is that Rosemary is unaware she is detailing an abusive relationship with her mother. For Rosemary, she had everything. She was clothed, well fed and never went without. Her mother presented herself immaculately and from the outside, everything seems normal.
The play switches from poetry to prose frequently and sound designer Helena Almeida incorporates the use of voice overs in order to further paint the picture of Rosemary’s mother using intimidation and denigration to systematically destroy Rosemary’s sense of self-esteem and safety. I think using these sound techniques for this play on stage is brilliant because it also supports the narrative that this is simply not Rosemary’s version of “reality”, there is no denying that she could be an unreliable narrator as the audience are being exposed to first hand accounts of the incidents between that occurred between them.
This is a very poignant play and highlights how a lot of children identify their parents as superhero’s despite all evidence pointing otherwise, because a child cannot handle the concept that the person they depend on for love and safety will give them neither. Rosemary internalises the blame in order to maintain the idea of a potentially caring or affectionate parent because without that, the fear of having nothing is worse. The absence of protection is justified by Rosemary using denial and minimising of her mother’s actions in order to move forward.
For the Love of a Primary Caregiver has completed its run, but you can check out what else is playing Brixton House here.