So Many Reasons starts with a story. You might even call it a parable. A young British woman visiting family in Ghana goes to the well, where she attracts a local man's attraction. He flirts, and she brushes him off. He offers to carry her water, and she politely declines. For all her independence, however, the young woman hurries away. "You still come away with less water."
It's a parable that cuts to the patriarchal quick. No matter how much a woman looks out for herself, the man looking on still has an impact. For Melissa, a 25 year-old Christian, that's true on two fronts. Her received ideas about womanhood all bear some relation to the male gaze or male pleasure, but, for her, there's always a male presence looking on at her life – God or, put another way, a faith forged by an ancient patriarchal society.
Racheal Ofori's coming-of-age story, structured like a string of gospel stories, attempts to navigate both. Like Michaela Coel's Netflix hit Chewing Gum, So Many Reasons examines the internal conflicts born of Christianity and female sexuality. Ofori could be the good angel to Coel's little devil. Behind her, a neon illumination of Jesus Christ flickers into the shape of a vagina, his flowing robes like labia minora, and for Melissa, it's not always clear which one to worship. One dictates no sex before marriage. The other's not too fussed by marriage…
Told in vignettes, fictional but with an autobiographical tang, So Many Reasons charts Melissa's sexual awakening and, through it, her wrestle with what it means to be a woman. Whizzing through childhood, adolescence and maturity, Ofori rattles through playground sex rumours and period horror stories. Melissa inherits her idea of womanhood, plying her older sister for advice and her best mate for sex tips. She even learns the gospel of masturbation from an oversharing aunt.
But it's only by experiencing each for herself that she reaches any real understanding. Cue a lot of lively first-time experiences – swooning Sunday school crushes, agonising Brazilians and damp sexual squibs – all told with vim under Zoe Lafferty's nimble direction. Ofori wrings comic gloss out of her characters – eyes shut serenity for the self-satisfied aunt, the boyfriend beaming with post-coital pride – and, if her story meanders, its point almost too tucked away, she's its engaging and likeable heart.
Beneath the larky confessionals, the point is Melissa's understanding of being a woman largely revolves around sex – and, as such, often initially defers to men. The other question – and it's why Melissa starts on her knees, asking God's guidance – is whether one can fully embrace womanhood and Christianity without contradiction. It's refreshing to hear someone tackle faith onstage without shame, embarrassment or cynicism, and Ofori really wrestles with her feminist theological dilemma. It matters to Melissa, so it matters to us – whatever our beliefs.
But So Many Reasons is as much about mothers as the Father and for all the mangled mistruths Mel picks up, her staunch Ghanian mother sets a constant example – in life, not in language, which so often falls short. Equally, though, it's her mother's devotion that pushes faith on Melissa – the very thing that prevents her living life for herself. It shouldn't matter who's looking on.
So Many Reasons runs at Camden People's Theatre until 3 February. The Calm Down Dear festival continues at the venue until 4 February.