Just Aretha, directed by Victoria Evaristo, is a semi-autobiographical one woman show about life as a Black disabled person in today’s Britain. Aretha Nortey gives an energetic and enthusiastic performance in the title role, highlighting the individuality of disability and the effect that it has on her life. Emphasising that she is not her disability, but just Aretha, this is a unique take on the disabled experience which looks at both the highs and lows of life with disability.
The set is very colourful with both Ghanian and British flags and a range of other brightly printed fabrics. The play opens with Nortey entering the stage and engaging in a mock photo shoot during which she lists key facts about herself and hobbies. This soon moves onto an account of the stereotypes people associate with both her race and her disability. Moving quickly from people watching her with suspicion to looking at her with pity, it quickly becomes clear that both her relationships with the world and with herself have been complicated by people’s preconceived ideas.
Some footage is shown to the audience at regular intervals throughout the piece which show monologues of Aretha’s memories and snippets of her everyday life. These add an interesting depth to the piece and the scenes at the hairdressers and the conversations around styling Aretha’s hair in a way which makes it easy for her to manage one handed are particularly interesting.
The footage elements are often accompanied by loud background noises which make it harder to hear Aretha. This is a nice touch which illustrates how her voice can be drowned out by the world and people’s assumptions about her. There are a number of audience participation elements, including questions related to the story, singing and dancing which add fun and entertaining elements to the piece.
Stories about Aretha being excluded are very poignant, particularly when a teacher at school tells her she cannot be allowed to play a game. Nortey points out that she would rather try then discover and decide her own needs for herself, something which is very identifiable to anyone in the disabled community who has been held back from doing something considered too risky by other people.
Nortey employs received pronunciation to talk about the medical definition and symptoms of her condition, Erb’s Palsy. This is a great way to incorporate the feeling of professional and matter of fact doctors who only tell you the facts and recommended treatments without always considering individual impacts and requirements. Busy doctors do of course need to follow guidelines, but for the patients themselves, this can be an alienating and lonely experience. Nortey’s reality checking demonstration of the impact of symptoms gives life and authenticity to the cold medical language.
The play also deals with the state of the world and how certain elements make life harder when you have a disability, such as needing a key to use a disabled toilet. This is very thought provoking and raises many issues that people who do not live with disability may not have thought about before. Carers are also spoken about and the reality of not always knowing who is going to be on the rota that day and whether they will treat you with the respect you deserve.
Just Aretha is an informative piece of theatre that highlights that as the world changes and disabled people become more visible, the labels and presumptions about life with disability can also increase. Reminding us of the need to treat people as individuals and not make assumptions based on their disability, race, gender, relationship status, culture or any other characteristics we see fit to prejudge, it shows the reality of life with disability and the impacts that it has on everyday life. From complicated medication schedules, to the effects of religion on disabled life, this is an excellent play which you will definitely think about next time you do the ironing.
Reviewer: Donna M Day
Reviewed: 8th May 2022
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★