Sheffield theatre group debut new play which addresses the ‘crisis’ of childbirth mortality
"We are creating a play for women, to create a legacy," said Jennifer Farmer, an African-American playwright who is looking at why black women are eight times more likely to die in childbirth compared to other races.
Her play How Far Apart, produced by Sheffield based Utopia theatre, features an all female cast and explores the perinatal experiences of pregnancy and childbirth.
Jennifer, aged 44, said: “It is a huge topic with many components.
“It is not a recent phenomenon. It is very much rooted in racial bias.
“We want to look at this crisis and bring with it its historical context.
“It is a sense of what we can change - we want action.
“We are creating a play for women who have had this experience.
“To create a legacy.”
Jennifer was commissioned to write the play by Moji Kareem.
Moji, founder of Utopia theatres, had her own challenging perinatal experience 18 months ago.
In 2018, the National Perinatal Epidemiology Unit at the University of Oxford, reported that 40 in every 100,000 black women in the UK will die in pregnancy, compared to five in 100,000 white women.
The conversation has moved further into the spotlight in the last couple of years but research shows that mortality rates amongst black women in childbirth are still on the rise – it appears that most of these women are of African heritage.
In Jennifer’s home country in the US, a lot of research has been conducted and the likes of professional tennis player Serena Williams have increased conversation about the subject.
But in the UK, it is still a difficult subject matter.
Jennifer said: “It is an uncomfortable conversation we have to have but we are getting there.
“We want the play to activate our audiences – to create action so we can save lives.”
Initial discussions about How Far Apart started around August last year, and although the first draft has just been written, there has been continuous research and outreach throughout.
The people of Sheffield were invited to attend the first public showing – in the form of a staged reading – when the first half hour of the play will be staged.
A panel discussion followed, including women who have had their own negative perinatal experiences, as well as medical experts in the field, who gave their opinions.
Jennifer said having a staged reading before the play tours next year was important for making an honest portrayal of women’s experiences.
Despite the need to be very cautious, it is hoped the play will encourage further conversation about the subject matter.
Jennifer said: “People should come because it is a poignant and very beautiful portrayal of six women who are trying to survive, grapple with and change quite difficult circumstances.
“It is such a huge topic.
“The main challenge is being accurate. We have to get that verification.
“A lot of women have had a traumatic experience. We don’t want them to be traumatised again.
“It is being fair to women who have experienced racial bias or neglect and also being fair to healthcare providers.
“No-one is at fault, but maybe they are making inaccurate or biased decisions.”
Jennifer is encouraged by the fact that people are already engaging with the play, which uses a mix of imagery and words to explore various key themes, including racism and generational changes.
How Far Apart aims to open discussion – considering questions like ‘what can we ask of healthcare providers, ‘how are we raising young women and girls’ and ‘do people feel empowered to speak out’.
History and culture may be partly to blame, which a section of the play explores.
Jennifer explained that when Jamaican’s were enslaved in the 1800s, pregnant women gave birth in makeshift hospitals and were labelled as non compliant for ‘kicking up a fuss’.
Women from the Afro-Caribbean community today often speak about the stereotype of being a ‘strong black woman’ – deviating from this is seen as ‘whinging’.
A woman in labour for example, ‘should be able to stand pain’.
The team at Utopia theatre encourages people to get in touch should they have an experience they wish to share or want others to learn from.
They also welcome feedback from every sector.
To coincide with the staged reading, Utopia theatre are also hosting two workshops.
One workshop will be for women with lived experiences, with input from medical professionals.
The other workshop will be a creative writing workshop for the women to help them document their experience.