Keisha Thompson’s Man on the Moon is a journey. From her house to her Dad’s. From child to adult. From sanity to something else. Along the way, Thompson dips in and out of memories and stories that expose the fragility of their father/daughter relationship, his mental health and identity as a Black British man, and the ways in which this all impacts Thompson and her own sense of self.
‘I take a physical journey after realising that I’ve not heard from my Dad in five months,’ Thompson says. ‘We usually communicate through books and letters, but once a significant amount of time goes past where that hasn’t happened, I make a journey to his house.’
Man on the Moon was constructed from building blocks of real conversations, with Thompson’s Mum, her Dad, her brothers, and a friend who works for the NHS. Thompson interviewed each of them and did a lot of reading around trauma: all things combined to create a way she felt she could express the truth.
‘I like to use taboos and politically motivated topics in the work I make,’ she says. ‘Because I feel it does have to have an impact on the real world in a way that gives people a new perspective, or a chance to latch onto a different kind of access, as opposed to reading a statistical report or watching a documentary. It’s a vehicle for providing people a place for reflection and catharsis in a way that doesn’t have to be personal.’
Thompson is approached after shows by people who have been encouraged by her work to speak to a family member about their mental health, or who feel more comfortable talking about the subject generally. It’s about getting the word out there, but that – she says – is significantly harder for Black people.
‘Statistically we’re over-represented. If you go into mental health institutions you’ll find there are more black and brown people than there are in the population,’ she says. ‘But then we’re underrepresented in terms of medical practitioners – the actual people who do the diagnoses.’
‘There’s an asymmetry there. You want to express your experience and seek help, but you may feel the person you’re speaking to doesn’t understand your experience because there are certain things they might not pick up on. You don’t have to belong to the community, but you do have to be aware of how culture can pertain to health issues.’
Thompson finds these pressures and stereotypes disabling. In the show, she talks about calling the hospital as opposed to calling the police to say her Dad is missing. When the woman who answers at the hospital asks why she hasn’t phoned the police, Thompson is struck by a question she knows the obvious answer to.
‘I don’t really feel like telling them. I’m not comfortable telling the police about my Dad. It’s not going to go down well.’
A starting point, Thompson says, would be acknowledging that there is an unconscious bias.
‘It would probably be quite an impactful step forward if everyone who was dealing with mental health patients had to go through some kind of training to acknowledge any biases they might have picked up. We all have them, we’ve all been socialised and exposed to the same kind of media output, it’s nothing that’s personal.’
‘I think that’s what people need to understand: while we’re making these statements and trying to clear out structural racism, we also have to acknowledge it and take personal agency to adjust it and move away from the conversation about guilt and blame and make it a bit more positive and progressive. Those kinds of changes in terms of rhetoric and adjusting personal bias and giving people agency on how they can contribute would help.’
As well as this exploration of Black Britishness, while putting together Man on the Moon, Thompson also found herself working through some of her own mental health issues, particularly the concept of insanity. Although there is a desire to be linked to her Dad in some ways, there are some ways she is irretrievably anchored to him that are frightening.
‘To see the extremity of intelligence and to see that to invest in knowledge can really erode your emotional intelligence or social skills was quite terrifying to me.’
Thompson and her Dad have similar passions – maths and science. Man on the Moon is sprinkled with numerology charts and space-related semantics, but in a way that’s poetic and accessible. She’s playing with the language her Dad uses, all logic, Venn diagrams, graphs and charts.
‘I don’t want to become him,’ she says. ‘Am I capable of that? What makes someone succumb to that reclusive lifestyle?’
‘And is he wrong? The world’s a bit scary. It’s not the nicest place. Maybe it’s better to just be in your house. Is that so bad? Is he insane, or . . . ?’
It seems as though Thompson is wrestling with the different definitions of ‘insanity’, but the one with which she has the most affinity is repeating behaviours while expecting a different outcome.
‘That makes sense to me. I use that definition to check in with myself,’ she says. ‘It did make me think about my own behaviour and the relativity of those definitions, or the subjectivity of them. There are certain ways I am in my life that some people might find to be wayward.’
When it comes down to it, the show is also about love. Thompson started out writing Man on the Moon by asking: ‘Why do I love my Dad? How do I love my Dad?’ He is, self-admittedly, not the easiest person to acknowledge as a Dad, she says.
‘But I think he’s been the best dad that he could be considering what he’s had to deal with. That’s what I wanted to say, really. I came at the show wanting to highlight dads in particular, because I feel like they’re not getting enough airtime, or the airtime was always bad. I want to showcase that it is possible to have a family member who is dysfunctional, and you can love them and interact with them and support them. But I always want to expose the burden of it all, the nuance of it all.‘
Man on the Moon, Summerhall, Red Lecture Theatre, 20-25 Aug, 7.10pm, £12 (£8).