The Human-Divine: Julene Robinson’s The Night Woman
By Maria Cicala
Below the basement of the Barbican Center is a small black box theatre where art manifests magic.From the 19th to the 21st of October, the Barbican’s Pit Theatre showcased the spellbindingly talented Julene Robinson in a limited premiere run of her partly biographical, partly spiritual one-woman play, The Night Woman.
Julene Robinson is a British-based Jamaican multi-hyphenate, whose diverse life experience pulsates through the play’s 90-minute run time. An ode to Blackness, womanhood, Obeah spirituality, and the universe Herself, The Night Woman presented a stunning portrait of the very personal elements of a universal narrative.
Set in a small, come-as-you-are, sit-where-you’d-like space, there is a distinct intimacy that is innate to a black box theatre. The immersion at the Pit is instant, enough to make one claustrophobic.
Viewers enter the room through a pitch-black, behind which I was immediately greeted by an installation of tangled ropes descending from the ceiling: this is Robinson’s all-encompassing, life-giving tree. Alit in soft blue light, the tree stood as a beacon in an otherwise dark and strange space. Despite the Pit’s modern and industrial appearance, this room was made almost ethereal by both the tree and the background music—a soothing and all-encompassing Afro-Caribbean beat. Beautiful and human, but somehow distinctly divine, the tone was set for the performance to come.
There were 164 total spectators, huddled together across eight rows of seats: we all sat in pure anticipation.
The house lights dimmed and out of the darkness, Robinson’s voice came on in the overhead speakers- richly carried us to the beginning of everything. Through a calm and steady voice, she tells us how before the universe came to be, there was darkness. Darkness and love. Her voice, echoing through the Pit, asked the audience to close our eyes and breathe deeply- recentering ourselves.
With light panels now lit on both sides of the stage, Robinson begins the show with a traditional Afro-Caribbean song and organic, contemporary dance, expanding and contracting herself across the length of the stage. She soon began her first monologue, an introduction to the history and traditions of her native Jamaica through an embodiment of her grandmother. From the monologue, we learn that Robinson’s grandmother was a strong Obeahwoman who held the wisdom and power of the entire universe within her but was also greatly burdened by the immense weight of prejudice and persecution. Physically, Robinson contorts herself to match the woman’s posture, lowers her voice and alters her accent- completely transforming herself in a matter of moments. Honouring the generations of Jamaican women who shared the experiences of her grandmother, Robinson poignantly ends this section with a hymn, traditionally sung by Jamaicans in times of struggle.
This hymn transitions into the second part of the performance, wherein Robinson communicates the struggle between a Black woman, (presumably Robinson herself), and her skin. Evoking the sharpest of Biblical passages, the character sinks to her knees and pleads to God: she yearns to be freed from her Blackness. This is the second of four monologues, and the most personal. Robinson narrates a deep-seated resentment for the darkness which envelops her. This hopelessness transitions to a voice calling out to her, from the speakers overhead: “Come, come.”
My favourite part begins here: After a few moments, Julene returns to the stage and introduces herself as Darkness responding directly to both the suffering woman and the audience. A tender figure, Darkness was there to tell us some truth— that we are not absolutes, neither complete joy nor utter despair, but that as humans we contain multitudes. Her tree is, in a sense, no longer material as it seems to be suspended in the middle of the universe, its ropes mingling amongst the stars. The entire set added to the sense of spacelessness and immateriality of this section. In contrast to the earlier, very personal words, Robinson transformed herself once again. Here, she personifies the entire universe and all the love and rage within it in one Black body. Here is also where the scale of the theatre worked beautifully, as the actor paces the length of the stage and looks directly at, seemingly, each member of the audience.
The following scene celebrates Black existence. Robinson led us through a beautiful love story: a young woman catches the eye of a handsome stranger and from there, her world comes alive. The bare tree in the centre of the stage turns lush and green. From that emotion is born a new world. The lovestruck girl in Julene Robinson closes her eyes and smiles widely, in pure contentment. She narrates this story with tangible care and excitement as if it were directly out of a fairytale. She assumes a squat position, one that supports the character as she describes a bloody beating, passionate lovemaking, and childbirth in only a few minutes. Despite the graphic nature of the content, it is not graphic. Lit by a bright, red overhead light, the tree now resembled a womb and a bloody lash, simultaneously reflecting the metamorphic nature of this particular monologue. The mark of this performance, rather, is found in the character’s ardent resistance- one which imprints itself on the whole of the performance.
In the play’s final moments, Robinson once again returns to herself. No longer in desperation, she is whole and joyful: for Robinson, the show is a testament to self-love and to gratitude for the women who came before her. In her body and mind alone, Robinson has built a community on stage.
In The Night Woman, 90 minutes felt like only one moment. One breath only exhaled as Robinson crescendos to the triumphant end. Her monologue is poetry, mingling on the same plane as worship through the music of an ancient spiritual tradition. It wholly embodies the human-divine. Julene Robinson bared her heart and essence, offering it to the audience for all to witness - a beautiful, messy display of vulnerability. The Night Woman is a heartfelt ode to her skin, hair, and body, a worship of Blackness, all while mourning the ongoing violence against the Black body. She tells the audience, “This is who I am. This is beautiful. Love it and take care of it.” In the spirit of survival as resistance, an inexhaustible joy prevails.
At its core, The Night Woman makes joy from a tumultuous history. It is not despite the darkness, but because of it, that this performance shines so brilliantly.