The grass is always greener on the other side, or at least it is for Darling (Lukwesa Mwamba), who quite understandably would rather have Barack Obama as her president than the one the impressionable schoolgirl has when the story begins – Robert Mugabe. But her rose-tinted view of the United States is as fantastical as her peers’ thoughts about China or Britain, and when the opportunity presents itself to emigrate, she does so. But, as the narrative would have it, it’s only later revealed that she was brought to America by her aunt, Fostalina, on a visitor visa (that is, for a temporary stay), thus leaving her unable to fulfil a promise to visit the friends and family she left behind, because re-entry to America would not be possible.
This, of course, presents challenges of its own, and there are only certain jobs that she can take on – with employers who are prepared to overlook, as her manager at a grocery store, Jim, tells her, “the situation with your… papers”. Employment legislation being what it is in the United States, he is able to hire and fire at will – that is, someone can be fired just because a manager or supervisor doesn’t like them. The flip side is that being fired doesn’t have the same stigma it does in Blighty, but that’s another discussion for another time: here, when personal circumstances compound Darling’s longing for home, she’s torn between the opportunities available in the USA despite her non-status, against “absolutely nothing” that her friend Chipo insists awaits her if she were to go back.
Chipo is with child despite still being a child herself – her friends speculate not so much who the father is but how she ended up pregnant in the first place (in other words, these are children so young they haven’t all had the birds and the bees conversation yet). Let’s just say it wasn’t Chipo’s choice. The games the children play are revealing, not only in terms of their individual character traits, but also what influences them, from traditional parental values to American television series. Perhaps surprisingly, however, the story is not altogether woeful, with its characters, possibly at least a dozen played between five actors (in the order given in the show’s programme, Munashe Chirisa, Anashe Danai, Princess Khumalo, Tatenda Madamombe and Kalungi Ssebandeke) more often than not finding some form of happiness in trying circumstances.
Indeed, it is in America where some deep-level sulking and dissatisfaction arises, and invariably over what are first world problems. It’s a little stereotypical – there must be some Westerners who appreciate how fortunate they (or should I say ‘we’) are on a global scale. TK, Darling’s cousin, largely stays confined to his bedroom playing video games, which makes his later decision to enlist in the US Marines one I wasn’t entirely convinced by, given his love of creature comforts. Darling’s uncle, Kojo, meanwhile, hasn’t kept pace with contemporary American society, believing his wife Fostalina’s place is in the kitchen – that she has been doing double shifts as the household’s main breadwinner, while he, um, hasn’t, is apparently irrelevant. The scene in question is as disconcerting as it is downright hilarious to watch.
The set is kept fairly minimal, which makes for swift scene changes, and if life in America doesn’t look much different from life in Zimbabwe, that seems to be the very point the production is making: life is what you make of it, and while it may be possible to move thousands of miles away, life’s imponderables and difficulties will still present themselves one way or another. And this show is far from what some refer to as ‘poverty porn’ (the term has its own Wikipedia page, should you be interested), even if parts of the first half felt like a tick-box exercise in covering salient topics for the situation in Zimbabwe at the time, with a suicide, talk of “the disease” (that is, Aids) and politically-motivated violence against white landowners.
There are deeply personal stories, however, and as Chipo tells Darling, just because Darling has taken a few minutes of her (relatively) wonderful life in America to watch BBC News, it doesn’t mean she has any actual lived-through experience of the journalistic footage she has seen. That, for me, is the key difference between reading an account of the atrocities of the Mugabe regime and a show like this: it’s one thing to be aware of headlines and statistics, but it’s quite another to consider in detail how people in the line of fire are permanently affected. An older man, known only as Shaka Zulu, is a case in point, still affected by what might be post-traumatic stress disorder: my only point of contention with the character is that he walks in an exaggerated manner I’ve never seen an actual elderly person do. Told with energy and enthusiasm, it’s more of a coming-of-age story than it is a political one, and therefore uplifting rather than infuriating.
Humorous and horrifying in equal measure, the show was a thoroughly engaging experience from start to finish.
Review by Chris Omaweng
Paradise. Home of 10-year-old Darling and her friends: four children on the edge of innocence. A playground overflowing with mischief and games where they imagine countries a luxurious life away from theirs in Mugabe’s Zimbabwe. But when Darling moves to Michigan, the Western world she encounters as a teenager is far from the American utopia of her dreams…
Presented by East Midlands’ companies Fifth Word and New Perspectives, We Need New Names will be performed by a six-strong cast, and follows on from New Perspectives’ Stage Award and Black British Theatre award-winning adaptation of Chigozie Obioma’s The Fishermen.
Fifth Word and New Perspectives in association with Brixton House present:
We Need New Names
An adaptation of the Booker Prize-nominated novel about coming-of-age in Zimbabwe and America
Based on the book by NoViolet Bulawayo | Adapted by Mufaro Makubika |
Directed by Monique Touko
@fifthword | @NPtheatre | #WeNeedNewNames | www.fifthword.co.uk | www.newperspectives.co.uk
Based on the book by NoViolet Bulawayo Adapted for the stage by Mufaro Makubika
Directed by Monique Touko Designed by Ingrid Hu
Lighting design by Adam King Composed by Tendai Humphrey Sitima
Sound design by Ed Lewis Movement by Ricardo Da Silva
Lukwesa Mwamba (as Darling), Munashe Chirisa, Anashe Danai, Kalungi Ssebandeke
28 April – 10 June
28 Apr – 6 May Brixton House, London
4th Floor, Brixton House, 385 Coldharbour Ln, London SW9 8GL