Lemn Sissay is magnetic. He hosted this year’s inaugural Northern Soul Awards so I witnessed first-hand his incredible ability to capture an audience and hold its interest firmly in the palm of his hand. He’s also a bloody cracking performance poet. Now he’s back on stage in Manchester at HOME as part of Journeys Festival International and Orbit Festival.
It’s one year on from the publication of his first book in eight years, Gold from the Stone, and this time Sissay (who is also Chancellor of Manchester University) is back with his autobiographical one-man play, Something Dark. It’s a powerful dramatic monologue which tells the tale of Sissay’s upbringing in children’s homes and foster care, and the global search for his blood relatives. It’s also an exploration of identity which prompts us to question our own sense of place in the world.
The evening is split into two parts: a dramatic reading and a Q&A session. Yet, things don’t quite go to plan. Sissay walks onto the stage to rapturous applause and, instead of launching right into the reading as planned, he has a 20-minute chat with us instead. Warm, affable and genuine, you cannot help but be enchanted by Sissay. Not only is he extremely talented, he’s a thoroughly nice bloke.
Something Dark is stunning and perceptive. I laugh, I’m astounded, I’m entertained and there are points where I’m blinking back tears behind my glasses. It’s full of poignant lines, stunning imagery and insight. Originally directed by Manchester International Festival’s John McGrath for National Theatre of Wales, Something Dark has been performed globally, and even adapted for broadcast on BBC Radio 3. It’s tough subject matter but important to discuss.
“I know what I know about families through not having a family,” explains Sissay during the Q&A. He reveals that he’s taking Wigan Social Services to court for “the very specific abuse of stealing my family from me”. Wrongdoings, and the narrative of who is at fault, are intricately woven throughout the piece, and it cleverly brings up a host of questions: why does society think it’s acceptable to place blame on children? Or pregnant women? Or families who are struggling to cope? Where is the support? Why do these prejudices exist?
“We – kids in care – are the fall guys for the dysfunction that’s at the heart of all functional families. It’s been happening since time immemorial. [We] place blame on the child for [caregivers] not being able to cope. How many people would love that for their own kid? ‘Go on, piss off. Take them away.’ But they don’t.”
He continues: “What makes kids in care so incredible is that we see it. We see it. Most of us push it down and don’t speak about it, and we go to the next person, and we try to be good, try to be good, try to be good, but I don’t believe that a child needs to be good to be a child. What should happen is [we should say] ‘it stops here, you’re a child’. You get everything. You get love here.”
For Sissay, writing and performing Something Dark is not a form of therapy. “You shouldn’t tell your story in the way that I’ve told mine if you’ve not come to terms with it. Your wellbeing has got to be in mind.”
Instead, he’s an advocate of one-on-one (or group) therapy where you can “look each other in the eye” and self-care like drinking lots of water, exercising and living well. The body of research that went into writing the play hasn’t simply been so he can share his tale with others, he wanted to collect evidence.
“Although you hear me telling this story from my point of view, I found documentary evidence to prove all of this to you. All family is a set of disputed memories between one group of people over a lifetime, and I didn’t have anyone to dispute the memory of me.”
So, Sissay felt like he had to “find truth of all these things” to be able to tell a whole narrative, rather than a story told solely from his perspective, and did so through TV and radio including the BBC documentary series, Child of the State.
The story of children’s homes is discriminatory. “There is an unquestioned prejudice against kids in care. This is about us. It’s about society. I wrote this play primarily because I thought it was very difficult to understand the concept of not having anybody – I mean no brothers, no sisters, aunts, uncles, cousins, parents, grandmothers, grandads. That was what I wanted to get over.”
And he does. There are points during his reading where I’m on the verge of tears just thinking about my own family. I can’t imagine not having such a strong support network. No-one should be alone during times of struggle – or times of joy.
The evening is structured as a dramatic reading where Sissay stands static (or as static as Sissay gets) behind a lectern while the play makes use of an entire stage and uses movement, light and varying tone of voice. But there’s something commanding about this stripped-back performance.
Someone in the audience asks if he knows where his courage comes from, to which he shouts “Wigan” and everybody laughs. His truthful response? “I’m pretty sure that it’s because I had no choice. I had nobody to come back to so I didn’t have anything to lose.”
Another asks what we need to do to change the care system. “Our attitude has to change. I don’t think it’s got to do with what we provide for the young people in care. It’s a wholesale change in attitude. If a child is brought up in care, they are legally parented by the Government. The Government should be judged on how it treats its child,” he says.
“So many people have been in care in popular culture, in our stories,” adds Sissay before reeling off a list of famous names from Harry Potter to Cinderella, Moses and people in the Greek Myths. “And yet that child is supposed to feel that they can’t say [that they grew up in care]. The prejudice is ours.”
A surprising, and interesting, fact is that Sissay is extremely famous in Ethiopia. “I walk down the street in Ethiopia and people look at me and say, ‘that is the guy who’s from England, is Ethiopian, is a poet, whose name means ‘why’, and he’s come home’.”
“And oh,” says Sissay, before drawing the show to a close. “Superman was adopted.”
For more information about upcoming events at HOME, click here.
For more information about Lemn Sissay, please visit his website.