Something Darkby Dave Durbach, image by James Ross / 15.11.2010
“I had no qualifications, no experience. I had a birth certificate, and a fistful of poems. I was going to the nearest city where there were people who looked like me: Manchester! And there was no going back.”
Lemn Sissay was put into foster care by his Ethiopian mother (temporarily, she thought) while she studied in England. The boy was quickly separated from his mother, given the name of his social worker (Norman) and swallowed up by the welfare system. He was raised by a white foster family until the age of 11, believing that they were his biological parents. Convinced that the boy was bringing evil into their home, they then sent him packing, telling him he would never hear from them again.
The boy would spend the remainder of his youth in government foster homes, picking up nicknames like Chalkie White, Snowflake and Chocolate Drop. Forced to come to terms with his blackness in the isolation of lilywhite Lancashire, he was 17 before he had the chance to get to know another black person.
A year later he uncovered letters between his mother and social workers, discovered his real name (literally meaning “why?”), moved to Manchester, and began searching for his mother. At the age of 21, fame already beckoning, following the release of his emphatic debut Tender Fingers in a Clinched Fist, he met his birth mother for the first time, who told him he had been conceived by rape. Fairy-tale ending it may not have been, but for the first time in his life, he acquired something that most of us either take for granted or wish we didn’t have to deal with: a family.
Currently playing in Jozi, Something Dark is iconic British poet Lemn Sissay’s attempt to retrace his fascinating and already well-publicised life story. While both intensely personal and relatively common, the one-man play is far from a self-indulgent portrait of an artist. Nor is it simply another black westerner trying to score points in the motherland. It’s a powerful, thought-provoking and entertaining journey into the life of a man worth listening to.
First performed in 2006, Something Dark was a long time in coming. “I’ve been writing for 20 years,” Sissay said after a recent show. “In 1988 The Guardian said: ‘Lemn Sissay has success written all over his forehead’. I knew then that any success I had would be a nail in my coffin. I understood that my story – the fact that I had to find my family – would kill me the more successful I was in other people’s eyes. I was aware of what I didn’t have, so the more things I got, the more I’d turn around and there’d be absolutely nobody there. I was utterly out of context. I knew that then, even when I was 16 years old, and I said it . . . I’ve waited all of my life to be at a particular place inside myself where I could write my story without being emotionally harmful to the audience, or to myself. I would never give you this story if I were not in a place where I could give it.”
Throughout the production, Sissay disarms his audience by blending humour with anger, often at the flick of a switch. “I’ve fought for the right to laugh, having had the experiences that I’ve had, and I don’t take laughing lightly,” he continued. “When I was younger I was often told to articulate my anger on stage, which I did very well. I made quite a lot of money through people feeling guilty. I started to get irritated that what was expected of me was an aesthetic of anger. I never believed in that and therefore rebelled against it. And I’ve continued to do that throughout my career. I’ve always struggled with acceptance on the wrong terms.”
Why did he decide to bring this story to South Africa, and how relevant is it in this country? “One side of me says I don’t have the right to project my story onto anyone, and I kind of don’t, out of respect,” he explained. “But out of respect what I can do is tell my story as best I can. And I know that there are parallels – the taking away of the name, the finding of the name. It’s a story that has been told many times.”
Having only encountered his relatives as an adult has given Sissay a distinctive take on the significance of the family. “One of the things that worked in my favour, bizarrely, is that I had no one. When I left that little village town for the city, there was nobody to call me back, nobody to call to see if I’m OK, nobody to manipulate me mentally. That’s what families are: the power of suggestion – “so when are you getting married?” That’s all family is, just groups of people that suggest things. It’s a consistent flood of that over generations. I had none of it, and I was aware I had none of it. In many ways, what could’ve worked against me worked for me. The odds of me growing into the person I am are a million to one. It’s funny how things turn out.”
Does Something Dark represent the end of this journey, or is he still seeking? “I didn’t only find a family, this dysfunctional thing, but I found myself, me: together one day, confused and messed up the next. I’m OK – I didn’t do anything wrong, nobody is to blame. It is was it is. I take each day as it comes now. I’m not great, I’m not happier than the next person, but I’m no longer to blame, and I’m no longer hurting myself. As a consequence, I’m no longer hurting others. At least I’m trying not to. So I’m happy to be a work in progress.”
*Directed by John McGrath, Something Dark is showing at the Market Theatre’s Barney Simon Theatre until 28 November.