For the Toronto Fringe Festival 2021, Junebug Productions presents Mangoes from the Valley. Written and directed by Aryana Mohammed, this performance employs evocative drum beats, vocals and naturalistic movement to explore a young woman’s traumatic experience as a Venezuelan refugee in Trinidad & Tabago.
The filmed performance opens with some introductory text explaining the political and economic crisis in Venezuela. Of the many people who have fled to Trinidad & Tabago, some women, including minors, become the victims of human trafficking. This is the story of one of those women—Maria.
We experience Maria’s isolation and emotional strain through Renee Michelle King’s nuanced body language and revealing physicality. We don’t get to see the world she exists in outside of her small room, but we can sense it in her behaviour.
The set is deceptively cosy. Through context and cumulative awareness, it effectively conveys Maria’s oppression. Living out of a suitcase, her belongings strewn about for utility rather than comfort, she goes through the motions of a life from which she is painfully disconnected. She prepares her appearance for clients, bathing and applying make up, but she isn’t really there.
The performance becomes quite harrowing once we get to the sexual assault. This sequence was uncomfortable for me in a multitude of ways that I think are worth examining.
The assault is portrayed in mime. King quite literally violates herself in a way that feels deliberately performative. Is the character of Maria reliving the assault to achieve some form of catharsis? Or is this meant to be understood figuratively—a stylistic representation of the event itself?
I don’t have definitive answers to these questions—nor, perhaps, should I. Regardless, the sequence made me cringe and I feel compelled to unpack that reaction. It isn’t simply unease with the artifice of the staged violence; no, it calls into question my interpretation of the performance and my appreciation of the trauma being conveyed.
The mangoes of the title have an unexpectedly intense payoff. In a desperate moment of grasping for sensual comfort, the fruit offers some familiar solace. It is brief though. Out of a sense of obligation to family back home, she remains—trapped by the financial gains presented by continued sex work, despite the risks and the emotional toll.
The downbeat finale leaves us in a devastating place. I didn’t connect to it as deeply as the creators so clearly intended, but Mangoes from the Valley is undeniably arresting. I have taken pieces of it home with me and must find a way to live with them. If you can sit with Maria and her torment, it has a potent visceral impact.