A One Act by Alexis Hope
Inspired by a true story. To survive the atrocities of poverty and hunger is one thing. To survive the atrocities of poverty and hunger as a woman is another thing entirely. Surviving in this world requires certain sacrifices. For Mercy, it means making the difficult decision to not only sacrifice her innocence, but sacrifice her child as well; in a climate where sex work is highly disapproved of and abortion is illegal. Through the eyes of two spirits, a story of reconciliation and strength unfolds, a story meant to offer a voice to the women across the sea who are suffering at the hands of oppression amidst poverty.
Set in the early 2000s: in a poverty stricken neighbourhood (i.e. Kibera, Kenya), which a river (i.e. Nairobi River) passes through.
The stage should be bare except for a single box on the main stage centre and silks hanging down on either side. Lighting changes (i.e. deep blue to soft orange) should determine whether the characters are in the past or the future.
MERCY is a young woman of colour. She may be young, but her spirit has been weathered down, making her appear older than she is. During the flashback scenes, she is fixated on survival, regardless of the consequences. Fear often drives her. She once was a dreamer who was forced to wake up because of her hunger pains. During the present day scenes, she is in shambles; she is burdened by guilt and in desperate need of forgiveness. Her fragility at this point is palpable.
DIONE must be played by a young woman of colour who is able to transition fluidly into other characters. As a spirit, she feels deeply hurt and betrayed by her mother’s choice to end her life. However, as the play progresses, this sense of betrayal and hurt is transformed into understanding and sensitivity. Her purity and lack of judgement are her most memorable qualities.
KAIA must be played by a young woman of colour who is able to transition fluidly into other characters. She is a spiteful spirit who is filled with hatred and rage towards her own mother. She can not contemplate forgiveness and often refuses to hear anything else but her own thoughts. She is cold, sometimes even towards other spirits. Ultimately, her inability to let go and move on is what keeps her anchored to a cycle of torment; watching more women dispose of more children because the world couldn’t be bothered to help.
On the banks of the river (downstage centre), DIONE lies curled in a fetal position, while KAIA stands behind her on a box upstage centre, at first staring at the heavens, then out to the audience. She begins to whisper chant “Another baby, another body”.
Enter MERCY, heavily pregnant and weeping. She staggers behind the box and proceeds to scream in agony as if in labour. As the screams and tears intensify, DIONE writhes on the ground as if emerging from the womb. Meanwhile, KAIA covers her ears and joins in screaming, in order to drown out the sound of the labour.
MERCY’s screams turn into panicked hushes as she attempts to silence her crying baby (DIONE is wailing as if she were a newborn). KAIA lowers her hands and looks around for the child.
The crying dies down as MERCY slowly cradles a silk cloth and hums.
KAIA sits down on the box and holds her knees, following MERCY with her eyes, waiting for what is to come, while DIONE slumbers. MERCY is unaware of the spirit watching her.
KAIA: She is coming. (steps off the box and slowly circles MERCY, who is oblivious) Another baby. Another body.
MERCY: (to the bundle in her arms) A baby.
KAIA: (to audience) A baby she won’t take care of.
MERCY: A baby I can’t take care of.
KAIA: I have heard it all before. (looks at MERCY, then out to the audience. She returns to rest against the box as if accepting defeat)
MERCY: I never thought this would happen. I tried to be careful. I really did. But I needed the money. That was all that mattered. (the faint sound of music from the brothel scene plays as she says this, almost haunting her) Then you came along. A baby. (repeated as if in a state of shock)
DIONE begins to cry, hungry and cold. MERCY tries to shush her while looking around in fear.
MERCY: Please be quiet. Someone will hear you. They will arrest me if they find us. (the panic is evident in her voice) I am sorry but I have to do this. I can’t take care of you. You had no future. You would have just ended up on the streets like me, doing anything for a dime. (shudders at the unpleasant memories)
She begins to loosen her grip on the bundle of cloth and gently places the child on the ground.
MERCY: There is nothing more I can do. It is what is best for you. I have to do this – I have to live, so you cannot..
She looks to the sky, utterly vulnerable and defeated.
MERCY: I am sorry, I am so sorry. (takes a deep, wavering breath) May God forgive me.
The sound of the winds and the rushing river picks up, the stage darkens. The bundle of cloth is unravelled by MERCY and she dances around with it on stage left, as if personifying the river. DIONE begins to struggle and gasp for air in the middle of the stage. Then KAIA’s voice joins in, gasping for air beneath the water. DIONE reaches out her hand to MERCY, as if trying to cling onto life. KAIA makes her way downstage and reaches out her hand to DIONE. At this point, the three should be in a triangular shape symbolizing the boundary of life and death.
Wind and water stop.
MERCY abruptly stops her dance and clutches the cloth in grief. She makes her way up to stand on the box and sway gently. DIONE collapses at the feet of KAIA, finally giving into death.
Cello music plays.
DIONE lays dead centre stage.
KAIA: She is here. Another body. Another spirit.
KAIA leans down and brushes DIONE’s hair. DIONE begins coughing as if there were water in her lungs. She slowly begins to rise and looks around the stage shrouded in silk and white lights.
She quickly backs away from the girl, moving toward the front of the edge stage on her knees. When she reaches the front, she is pushed back as if hitting a wall. She stands up and starts miming, as if trapped in a box.
KAIA: It’s no use. You can’t leave.
DIONE ignores this statement and continues to try to push against the walls all around the stage.
KAIA: You know.. they say the first name you utter in heaven is the last one to betray you. (slowly rises)
DIONE: Heaven? Betray me? (looks back at KAIA)
On the box, MERCY is standing, washing her hands of her sins: staring at the sky and then back down at her hands, while muttering “What have I done? Please forgive me ” under her breath, which grows louder up until KAIA’s next line. DIONE notices her and begins to rush toward the box.
DIONE: Mama, Mama!
KAIA pulls her back to downstage right.
DIONE: No! No! Let go of me (tries to shake herself free) Look at me, Mama. (to KAIA) Let go. (back to MERCY) Come get me.
KAIA: She doesn’t want you. Don’t you get it? (anger slowly creeps into her voice) You are dead. Your mother killed you. Left you by the river alone. Left you to drown. (DIONE, at a loss for words, opens her mouth to speak but is silenced) She did not want you. You are nothing to her. Nothing. (KAIA roughly pushes DIONE back, then begins to tremble) I would know.
MERCY begins to hum and KAIA moves closer centre stage.
KAIA: Three days. She starved me for three days. My own mother. She said she couldn’t take care of me. My corpse was abandoned upon a pile of garbage (spits out the words). For them, the choice is a child or prison. They don’t want either, so they kill us themselves. In secret. (shaky breath to recollect herself, during which she hears MERCY humming. KAIA reacts in anger) Murderer. (points at MERCY, who stops swaying and humming). MURDERER.
DIONE: (softly and brokenhearted out to audience) Murdered.
Soft music plays. KAIA moves stage left, staring out at the audience, and DIONE moves stage right while MERCY brings the box downstage centre and flips it so that the opening is facing up. When the box is placed, DIONE slowly moves toward MERCY, feeling the same sense of confusion and disbelief from the previous scene. DIONE grabs the cloth from around MERCY’s neck.
*Character change: as soon as the cloth is torn away from MERCY’s neck, DIONE and KAIA adopt the persona of young, malicious, gossiping women in the village doing laundry.
MERCY washes laundry in the box while the two women fold the silk cloth.
Washer Woman 1 (DIONE): (to KAIA) Did you hear about the vicar’s daughter?
Washer Woman 2 (KAIA): (nods) Poor thing was attacked a few months ago wasn’t she?
Washer Woman 1: Yes, but now the girl is pregnant!
Washer Woman 2 & MERCY: Pregnant?!
Both of them look over at MERCY, who usually doesn’t participate in their conversations.
MERCY: She is pregnant?
Washer Woman 1: Well, she was pregnant. My sister saw her going down one of those alleys, the same alleys where blood runs out onto the street and all you can hear are screams echoing off the walls.
Washer Woman 2: I thought it was illegal to get an…
Washer Woman 1: (cuts her off) Oh it is. That is why this is very hush hush. (looks at the others pointedly) If I were her though, I would not go through with such a risky operation.
MERCY: You wouldn’t?
Washer Woman 1: And have a higher chance of dying or getting caught by the police? Absolutely not.
MERCY: Well.. How would you go about doing it then?
Washer Woman 2: Well for starters, I wouldn’t go and get myself knocked up in the first place.
The two women share a cruel laugh while MERCY awkwardly looks at her feet. Then DIONE looks around suspiciously before continuing.
Washer Woman 1: If I went through with my pregnancy, I would just dispose of it once it was born. In the middle of the night. When no one is around. Quick and easy.
MERCY is clearly horrified.
Washer Woman 1: It may sound heartless, but look where we live? I can’t even feed myself, how would I even be able to care for a child?
Washer Woman 2: Speaking of food, you have been looking a little chubby lately, Mercy.
MERCY immediately feels sick and throws up into the upturned box. At the end of this scene, it is morning sickness.
Music plays. At the opening of this scene, the lights change and MERCY throws up again, now sick with grief. She reaches for the cloth which has been folded and dropped downstage left. She wipes her mouth and just rocks back and forth. KAIA and DIONE have pulled away and now stand on the edge of the main stage.
MERCY: I had to do it. I had to.
DIONE: My mother.
DIONE: She did this to me?
DIONE: My mother..
KAIA: She is not the first. Every day, a body is found. The shrivelled remains of angels wash up on the river shores or surface upon heaps of trash.
DIONE: I don’t understand..
KAIA: Many of us don’t, which is why we are trapped on the banks of this river. Our restless souls are forever trapped in the abyss between life and eternal peace.
DIONE: Trapped. She moves toward MERCY and takes the cloth from her hands. Tell me. How did this happen? Why did she have to make any decision at all?
KAIA: Look around. Look where we are. The dirt streets, the broken huts, the skin hanging off the bones of workers walking in bare feet down to the fields. Extreme circumstances lead to extreme actions.
Brothel music begins to play.
MERCY pushes the box down on the lower stage right against the lip. She stands in front of it playing with her hands and fixing her hair. The cloth is tied around her hips. DIONE and KAIA stand upstage in silhouette and proceed to say their lines in sync.
*Character change: DIONE and KAIA both play the matron of the brothel, harsh and cruel.
KAIA & DIONE: What is your business here?
MERCY: I need money.
A moment of silence so they may appraise their “merchandise”.
KAIA & DIONE: You’ll do. Now listen here girl. This is for their pleasure, not yours. So get the job done, give me my cut, and then get out. Understood?
MERCY: (choking back tears) Understood.
The music heightens. MERCY stands with her back to the audience on the box.
*Character change: KAIA and DIONE now play hungry, leering, male customers for the rest of the scene.
KAIA and DIONE move further downstage. MERCY begins to dance and turn, clearly uncomfortable and terrified, but knowing she must perform (the silks around her may be used). The two take up positions on either side of her. They hold their hands out in choking motion. They should again be in a triangular shape, this time symbolizing lust and innocence, and now MERCY is the centre of attention.
KAIA: And so she danced.
DIONE: With a painted smile and tired eyes.
KAIA: Passed on from man.. (MERCY tilts toward KAIA, clutching at her neck)
DIONE: To man.. (MERCY tilts toward DIONE, clutching at her neck)
KAIA & DIONE: Every night.
KAIA: Their hands would devour her delicate skin. (their hands rise up and she goes onto her tiptoes holding her throat)
DIONE: They stripped away her innocence (with one hand, DIONE unties the cloth from around MERCY’s waist) and left behind an empty shell.
MERCY escapes their clutches and falls off of the box onto her knees, trying to clean the filth from her body. KAIA and DIONE drop their hands and begin to circle her slowly.
KAIA & DIONE: Hunger.
DIONE: The mere pain of it sent her into the streets.
MERCY: I would do anything for a dime.
KAIA & DIONE: Lust.
KAIA: The desire of man which so easily corrupted her spirit. But with that desire, came consequences, often forced upon the woman who unwillingly gave herself away but needed to fill her stomach.
MERCY: I tried to be careful.
KAIA & DIONE: And Mercy suffered with hers for nine months.
MERCY: A baby. (rises on to her knees as if in prayer) Oh dear God, please forgive me. Please.
She collapses to the ground again, in a fetal position, crying herself to sleep.
KAIA moves the box back to the upstage centre. MERCY is laying on her side in the middle of the lower stage, twisting and turning as if in the middle of a nightmare. She keeps muttering “What have I done? Please forgive me” under her breath. KAIA and DIONE sit back to back on the box, holding the ends of the silks, chanting “A baby” over and over again, becoming louder as MERCY becomes more restless.
A scream from MERCY breaks the chant. She shoots up from her bed.
MERCY: My heart. I can not bear this pain. My child, the one conceived in an attempt to not starve, the one I had once dreamed of holding in my arms with a husband. Those dreams died long ago. And now, so has my baby. I killed my baby.
DIONE: Me. You killed me.
MERCY: Oh God, why have you forsaken me.
DIONE: (to KAIA) She is suffering.
KAIA: We are the ones who are suffering.
DIONE: But she is suffering too. Can you not hear it in her cries at night? Can you not see it in her eyes when she is startled awake from her nightmares?
KAIA: And? Our mothers left us; they abandoned us, they killed us. We are suffering, we are trapped here, watching their life continue while ours were cut so shortly.
DIONE: I understand now. The grief, the pain. My life. It would have been filled with the same grief and pain. She couldn’t bring me into that kind of world. But now she is suffering.
KAIA: (scoffs) Suffering.
DIONE: Maybe this is why we are trapped.
DIONE: The anger. The hate. We are trapped because of our resentment. We are keeping ourselves trapped by holding on to the past. It..it is time we let go.
MERCY: (whimpers in her sleep) I am sorry. Dear God please. Ease my sadness, ease my pain. I am so sorry.
DIONE: (to KAIA) Let go.
DIONE moves towards MERCY, holding the cloth in her hands; her presence calming her broken mother.
DIONE: I forgive you.
She kisses MERCY on the cheek and covers her with the cloth.
She stands on the other side of MERCY now and reaches her hand out to KAIA. The triangular shape is formed again, the final time symbolizing staying in the past or moving on into the future.
DIONE: Are you coming?
KAIA looks down at the sleeping form of MERCY. But this time, in the triangle, KAIA chooses not to advance with DIONE. She shakes her head “no” and watches mournfully as DIONE slowly walks upstage, toward eternal peace.
She looks back at MERCY and KAIA with tears in her eyes, then exits stage right.
KAIA resumes her position on the box from top of show.
MERCY awakens, rubs her eyes, touches her cheek, wraps the blanket around her head, and moves to sit behind the box again. The sounds of her screaming are followed by the wail of another baby (from DIONE offstage). KAIA looks out at the audience.
KAIA: She is coming. Another baby. Another body.
Begins to whisper chant “Another baby, another body” while music plays underneath.