Receiving a cancer diagnosis is a devastating blow, the outcome of treatment given dependent on when cancer within the body is detected. Up until very recently, research into the diagnosis of cancer within black people had been scarce, the NHS and Cancer Research UK having recently conducted a study including almost 700,000 diagnoses of 6 cancer types – breast, colon, non-small cell lung, ovary, prostate and uterine across five ethnic groups in England from 2012-2016. From this research, it was found that black women from Caribbean and African backgrounds are more likely to be diagnosed with certain types of cancer at later stages – 3 or 4 when treatment is less likely to be successful (Cancer Research UK) and. Zoning in on this seldom talked about topic of how cancer impacts black communities, in this particular case breast cancer, Naomi Denny confronts this with show Unseen, Unheard.
Rooted in the warmth and camaraderie of a weekly sharing circle based in a local community hall, 5 women bravely divulge their cancer journeys. Each woman coming to terms with their arduous battles but no longer alone. Chaired by grounded presence Pauline, Unseen Unheard organically fosters a safe space for vulnerabilities to be laid bare – Pauline now clear of cancer or NEOD (no evidence of disease), the pillar of the evening, always wary of bringing conversations back to some sort of neutral ground. Denny vividly captures the voices of 5 black women, or as the group are called ‘5 women black’ and busts myths held by the collective and beyond in this inter generational drama. The show is a necessary exploration of womanhood, issues of fertility, relationships and how the body deals with cancer and therapy things that resonate. Adaora Anwa’s Aaliyah is the baby of the group, at 25 she’s been diagnosed with triple negative breast cancer within the past 4 months and is visibly frightened of what could lay ahead. The quieter one of the collective, we root for her speedy recovery. Carol Moses’ Dorah is straight talking and the show’s comic relief. Unfazed by the idea of talking about her struggles, her vibrant air is exactly what is needed to encourage others to speak up. Diagnosed with stage 4 cancer (terminal), she’s lived with the diagnosis for about a year but is determined to live life to its fullest. Her mentioning that she’s had to commute to London from Bristol to access this group a powerful reminder of just how vital these types of spaces are.
Laya Lewis’ Ruth is a bubbly, loquacious soul who was first diagnosed with breast cancer 6 years ago. As a result, she had a mastectomy but 2 years after the cancer returned. She’s since been NEOD and is grateful for meeting fellow survivor Pauline who have now become life long friends. Yvonne Godden ’s Sonya is at a pre-cancer stage, with a strong affinity to faith, she leaves her future in God’s hands. Supported by her daughter Lily (Genesis Lynea), a high achieving junior doctor – we see the spiritual/medical debate play out, but also a mother wanting to heal in order to be there for her daughter. Simon Frederick and Suzann McLean direct an authentic hour, the play truly representative of the experiences of black women and one I look forward to seeing being developed further. An educational experience for me as this is something I seldom think about, and I’m sure for everyone watching too!
Written by Lucy Basaba.
Unseen Unheard is currently showing until Thursday 4th May 2023 at Theatre Peckham. To find out more about the production, visit here…
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