Theater review: Young mothers driven to desperation in “Shipside”


Shipside, which opened November 16 at the Playwrights’ Center, is the first fully produced mainstage performance by Exposed Brick Theatre, a four-year-old company dedicated to “telling untold stories.” While the play is effective in many respects and rises to moments of genuine pathos, the company’s educational pedigree is apparent: the production often hangs heavy with its girl-you-have-no-idea message about the struggles of young mothers in challenging circumstances.

Shipside, a play written by Stacey Parshall and directed by Suzy Messerole. Presented, by Exposed Brick Theatre, at the Playwrights’ Center (2301 E. Franklin Ave., Minneapolis). Remaining performances: Friday 11/23 and Saturday 11/24, 7:30 p.m. Tickets are by donation ($15 suggested); call (612) 720-4852 for reservations. See a feature story on this play from our media partner, Minnesota Women’s Press.

The plot was inspired by the story of Naomi Gaines, a St. Paul mother who threw her young twins—and then herself—into the Mississippi River on July 4, 2003. Disturbingly, two other mothers from the same low-income housing complex in which Gaines lived had killed their own children some years earlier. Playwright Stacey Parshall draws a parallel with the experiences of enslaved African mothers who “went shipside” on the trans-Atlantic crossing: taking the lives of their children for mercy’s sake.

The play follows Tammy (Rebecca J. Wall), a teenage mother evicted by her unfeeling suburban parents, as she moves into an urban low-income housing complex and spirals downward from cheery optimism to the brink of madness. While Tammy draws support from the motherly Sweets (Jamila Anderson) and wins the friendship of the skeptical Alicia (Aamera Siddiqui), she is troubled by the story of Mavis (LaDawn James), a woman who killed her baby and herself by bathtub drowning. Mavis was the previous resident of Tammy’s apartment, and she continues to haunt the space—very explicitly so, walking in Tammy’s steps and appearing behind a gauzy curtain to reprise past conversations with Sweets. As Tammy’s problems mount, Mavis seems to offer comfort even while tempting Tammy to follow her into the water.

The play is effectively staged, with chaotic colors painted by the late Mavis fading in and out of view on a backlit scrim. The performances are also well-tuned to the intimate space; Siddiqui is particularly effective as an abuse-hardened young woman whose impish streak bubbles up when she allows herself to relax. The events of the play’s final minutes, however, are shocking rather than moving: some of the copious time spent detailing the struggles of Sweets, Alicia, and Mavis might more effectively have been spent demonstrating the progress of Tammy’s sweeping shift from perky and sassy to despairing and delirious. Though the ambiguously supernatural element involving Mavis does lead to the play’s most chilling single moment, it generally distracts from the dramatization of horrors that are all too real.

Jay Gabler ( writes on culture and the arts. He is assistant editor of the TC Daily Planet.