What leads a mother to murder her child?
When Naomi Gaines tried to kill herself and her two youngest children in 2003 by jumping with them into the Mississippi River (Gaines and one child survived), it was the question on everybody’s mind. Playwright Stacey Parshall wants to change that question from “how could she?” to “how could we?”
“There’s always that sense of blame,” explained Parshall, referring to highly publicized stories of infanticide, like the Gaines tragedy. They point a finger and go ‘oh those women.’ But how can we as a collective let this happen?”
That question is at the heart of “Shipside,” a play about a struggling young mother haunted by women who killed their children. “Shipside” is the debut mainstage production for Exposed Brick Theatre, a company founded by Suzy Messerole and Aamera Siddiqui to produce theater that, in Messerole’s words, “gets at the layers beneath things.”
‘Creative mind paradise’
“Shipside” exposes the layers of experience and circumstance that can lead to postpartum depression and infanticide, communicating a new perspective on mental illness, the devastating effects of poverty and isolation and the sometimes overwhelming challenges of motherhood.
|If You Go|
Where: The Playwrights’ Center, 2301 E. Franklin Ave., Minneapolis
When: Fridays, Nov. 16 & 23, & Saturdays, Nov. 17 & 24, 7:30 p.m.; Sun., Nov. 18, 2 p.m.
Cost: $15 suggested donation.
The play tells the story of Tammy, a single teenage mother of a mixed-race child. Tammy is cut off from her family and forced to navigate parenthood, school and the social service systems on her own. She moves into an apartment that is haunted by the spirits of mothers who came before her-mothers who killed their children. Between the daily struggle to survive and the psychological struggle to live in the haunted space, Tammy is pushed to the edge, finally taking refuge in what Parshall calls a “creative mind paradise.”
That “creative mind paradise”-what many would simply see as mental illness-is something shared among the women in the play, both as help and hindrance. Parshall came up with the idea for the shared experience after she learned that Gaines had lived in the same low-income housing complex as two other mothers, Khoua Her and Mee Xiong, who had killed their children years before.
“I was just struck,” Parshall said. “We need to be alarmed, we need to be frightened. How can this happen in the same place? What if that place gives that back-that haunting?”
The apartment became a significant and challenging part of the play.
“The apartment has a very specific life,” explained Messerole, who said that finding a way to bring the apartment walls alive was one of her biggest directorial hurdles.
Actor LaDawn James, who plays a ghost named Mavis, a character modeled after Naomi Gaines, found that “it’s challenging to play a ghost and get into the rhythm,” but that the unusual role also helped her better understand the difficulties Gaines faced. “One of the most important things I learned from this whole experience is that women who do commit these crimes don’t do it out of hate or anger, mostly it’s because they think they’re sending their child to a better place,” James said.
Parshall started to look further into the past at other women who were forced to search for that “better place” to help her understand the characters in the play. A passage from Gloria Naylor’s novel “The Women of Brewster Place” kept coming to mind as she was writing:
“…They flew past the spilled brains of Senegalese infants whose mothers had dashed them on the wooden sides of slave ships. And she rocked on.”
“The world that was ahead of them [mothers and children forced into slavery] was hell on earth,” Parshall said.
“There had to be a better place, a paradise with no slavery. So they took the children and killed them on the side of the ship and some of the women jumped too.”
And so the name of the play–-“Shipside”-was born, and a lineage of mothers with limited choices became the impetus for a supportive sisterhood that develops among the characters, living and dead, in the play.
Every mother’s story
That emotional support, at once haunting and necessary, is something Messerole, a mother herself, thinks young mothers need a lot of. Messerole said that many in the cast have a “genuine, visceral understanding of postpartum depression that provides a layer of truth to the show.”
But sisterhood can only take a mother so far when she’s facing poverty, racism and loneliness.
“A collective of no resources is still no resources,” Parshall noted grimly. “Yes, there are women who can love each other with fierceness but that doesn’t pay the bills.”
Instead, as Rebecca Wall, who plays Tammy, explained, “[Tammy] is pushed into the social services, city-help sector. If you don’t do one or two things it threatens your health insurance, it threatens your kids.”
The combination of tenuous finances, a broken social service system, mental health problems and a lack of support puts Tammy, like the women who came before her, in a place with limited resources and even fewer choices, a situation that Wall thinks could have been avoided. “The biggest story [in the play] is how it could have been prevented,” she said.
Parshall hopes that “Shipside” is part of that prevention. Though the play was inspired by incidents of infanticide, it is really a universal story of motherhood, she said. “It’s not Naomi’s story, it’s not my story, it’s every mother’s story.”
Messerole pointed out that the ideal of motherhood that is “oh-so-different from the reality of motherhood,” can lead to damaging assumptions. “We flash these stories in the news and deem people crazy,” she said. “Then we don’t have to look at ‘what are the things that put pressure on young parents?'” It’s their hope that audiences leave the play with compassion and empathy for the work that mothers do. As Wall points out, mothers, especially poor, single mothers of color, are often met with “sympathy, but not empathy.” She hopes “Shipside” can help change that.
“Shipside” will feature after-performance panel discussions with the National Alliance on Mental Illness to discuss big issues like postpartum depression. And Parshall hopes her play can help all of us take small daily steps toward making motherhood more manageable.
“Maybe next time someone sees a struggling mother at Target, send her some peace,” she said. “When those things happen, that leads to bigger things. Eventually, much larger things can change and stuff like this wouldn’t happen. Someone would be there to help them, to help us.”