Zodwa Nyoni’s new play brims with so many ideas that, on occasion, the writing can feel a little clunky and polemical – announcing rather than dramatising its intentions. But at its heart is an emotionally gut-punching and tender tale of an autistic black boy, Dwight (Lee Phillips) growing up amongst the ignorance and prejudice of Thatcher’s Britain whilst his family doggedly strive for his dignity and protection, as well as their own.
At times, the play’s urge to illuminate specific cultural context – such as the 1981 Chapeltown, Leeds uprising (fuelled by racism and poverty) or the Warnock Report that gave rise to the 1981 Education Act (which first established the concept of special educational needs: ‘the purpose of education for all children is the same but the help that individual children need will be different.’) feel like micro-lectures inserted into this family drama and occasionally add drag to its driving action. Whilst utterly fascinating to explore the confluence between a heartless Tory Britain and the beginnings of (some) transformation of education for the disabled for the first time in 40 years, these themes either merit specific exploration on their own or Nyoni needs to find a more theatrical way to weave them into the story beyond a few lines of expository dialogue. (I’d also love to read in-depth essays in the programme about them.) Nonetheless, The Darkest Part of the Night is fundamentally a play about unconditional family love and succeeds on that basis. The performances of Nadia Williams as Dwight’s mother, Josephine, and Brianna Douglas as his young sister, Shirley, are so true and touching, that I found it impossible not to be moved despite my cavils with the script.
Lee Phillips (Dwight) is an actor who lives with autism (trained by top conservatoire Central School of Speech and Drama and a member of Access all Areas which teaches theatre companies how to create space for neurodiverse and disabled artists). He delivers a layered and powerful performance as both boy and man in the story’s forty-year span. Phillips’ range shows impressive physicality and movement (design by Ingrid Mackinnon) as well as nuanced vocalisation and strong comic timing. Director Nancy Medina’s telling and Williams’ performance capture the simultaneous devotion, frustration and stress of mother and son in an unforgiving world. I challenge any parent of a child with special educational needs or disability to remain dry-eyed during this most authentic, and sometimes gruelling, story.
Jean Chan’s set, with a giant vinyl LP of Mahalia Jackson’s Greatest Hits at its centre, creates a powerful visual image that syncs with the play’s carefully chosen soundtrack. Shirley and Dwight’s father, Leroy (Andrew French), shows his steel by subtly tipping up his daughter’s chin as they dance to Jimmy Cliff. We learn that young Shirley does grow to be a head teacher, her inner steel and pride tested but enduring.
There are many aspects of this play that are painful. The production runs in the same summer as a contest rages between two would-be Prime Ministers competing to be more Thatcherite than the other; progress towards the rights of the disabled remains obscenely slow and unpaid family carers remain largely unsupported; income equality and economic security are elusive for many (and disproportionately so for people of colour) and the injustices meted out to the Windrush generation are yet to be concluded, let alone compensated. The parallels are sharp. For the play itself, there could be some refinement and the white social worker character, Anna (Hannah Morrish) is problematic. Nyoni points out that ‘when white women cry, people do listen’ but the ‘white saviour’ trope needs more unpacking to make the deeper point I think the author intends. As the play rushes towards the conclusion of an awful lot of themes and plot points, it longs to be uplifting after a pretty emotionally exhausting journey. But in the urgency to find hope amongst so many troubling motifs, the play shifts gear a little too abruptly and almost quixotically.
The Darkest Part of the Night is not without flaws – it can veer towards the didacticism of a 19th-century ‘problem play’. But Zodwa Nyoni has picked a thorny and important problem to explore at the most apt of times. Ultimately, she tells a moving tale of family love and courage marked by outstanding performances.
Review by Mary Beer
Nancy Medina directs the world premiere of Zodwa Nyoni’s gripping and heartfelt drama that explores the complexities and beauty of what it really means to care for one another.
As adults, siblings Shirley and Dwight remember their upbringing in 1980s Chapeltown Leeds differently. In the height of racial discrimination, police brutality and poverty, the struggle for survival ripped through their family.
Dwight was discovering what it meant to be an autistic young Black boy in a world determined never to understand him. Shirley was trying to forge her own independence away from rigid expectations at school and home.
Now as adults, they need to bring together the fractured pieces of their past in order to move forward.
JAMES CLYDE – MR CAMPBELL/POLICE OFFICER/PRISON OFFICER/MOURNER
BRIANNA DOUGLAS – YOUNG SHIRLEY
ANDREW FRENCH – CALVIN/LEROY
HANNAH MORRISH – ANNA/MOURNER
LEE PHILLIPS – DWIGHT
NADIA WILLIAMS – SHIRLEY/JOSEPHINE
ZODWA NYONI – PLAYWRIGHT
NANCY MEDINA – DIRECTOR
JEAN CHAN – DESIGNER
GUY HOARE – LIGHTING DESIGNER
ELENA PEÑA – SOUND DESIGNER
BRIONY BARNETT CDG – CASTING DIRECTOR
INGRID MACKINNON – MOVEMENT DIRECTOR
SAMANTHA E ADAMS – PRODUCTION DRAMATHERAPIST
ELEANOR MANNERS – VOICE & DIALECT COACH
MEGAN KEEGAN-PILMOOR – COSTUME SUPERVISOR
KEISHA BANYA – WIGS SUPERVISOR
KATE WATERS – FIGHT DIRECTOR
STEPHEN BAILEY – ASSISTANT DIRECTOR
23 Jul – 13 Aug 2022