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Growing Up in Care: A Review of ‘Something Dark’ by Lemn Sissay

My rating: * * * * *

For three nights only, the Battersea Arts Centre offered an incredible opportunity to see renowned poet, Lemn Sissay, perform a dramatic reading of his acclaimed play Something Dark – a piece that has been recently added to the A-level syllabus.

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Lemn Sissay performing Something Dark


Something Dark is a remarkably raw and unexpectedly comical one-man play, which tells the life story of Lemn Sissay as he searches for his family and explores the meaning of identity. Sissay was born in 1967 to an Ethiopian immigrant and put in the foster care system while his 21-year-old mother finished her studies. He was raised as ‘Norman Greenwood’ by a religious white family until the age of eleven, when they returned Sissay to the care system, believing him a sinner. As Sissay states, “From then till eighteen years old I was in children’s homes – the legal property of Wigan parented by the Government. They never called. And I simply folded myself into myself and became everyone’s extrovert. Within two days of being in the children’s homes I was christened Chalky White, Norman!” (p. 16). Sissay takes us through his life, describing his transition to adulthood, his move to Manchester, his career as a performance poet and the eventual discovery of his family members as he journeyed to Gambia and Ethiopia.

The play only ever consists of Sissay himself, standing centre stage, illuminated by the spotlight, perfectly encapsulating the theme of isolation that runs so prominently throughout the play. Sissay offers us an intriguing, Beckett-esque opening; it is very “Not I” in style with its metaphorical ticks (“Dark.”, “Light.”, “The Story.”, “The Child…”) and bitty half-told interludes (he orders ‘light’ at a restaurant and describes the black man’s struggle to successfully hail down a cab in the dark).

The story then begins, functioning as a type of reflective stream of consciousness. The narrative unfolds through a series of poetic meditations on a few key moments – his childhood exorcism, his foster family’s abandonment, his first encounter with his biological mother, etc. These experiences – each heavily infused with symbolism – gradually form the overall picture of his life.

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Photo by: @vitalwritersblog


This play is, of course, hard-hitting. How could a piece about a child’s experience in foster care NOT be? You can expect some poignant moments, which fearlessly tackle themes of abuse, abandonment, alienation, rejection, and racism.

I was never beaten – I was chastised. Chastised with belts, chastised with rulers, chastised with slippers and with canes. Chastised but never beaten. (p. 16) And so there I was the boy who had arrived from nowhere to become nobody in a town that believed in nothing yet stood against everything. Hey in this town I was somebody, not just anybody; I was a nobody – and I knew this cause everyone told me so! Me and my kind are invisible. (p. 21) I’ve never known secrets. Keep it in the family? No family. What goes on between these four walls is our business?…No four walls and there was no ‘our’. (pp. 36-37) I flew back to England, to Manchester, the place I should never have been, named after someone who never should have named me, fostered to breasts who should never have been allowed to foster. Who could I tell? (p. 38)

However, Sissay is a masterful storyteller; his electric style illuminates even the darkest moments of the play. There are many points of relative lightheartedness – moments of comedic relief, of self-conscious, hysteric hilarity. For example, in the midst of a traumatic revelation about his past, Sissay stops to contemplate the ironic discovery that his name ‘Lemn’ means ‘Why’ in Amharic;

“I’m thirty-two years old my name means why. I’m a poet. Couldn’t have a more apt name” (p. 44).

Overall this is an absolute must-see. If you miss his performance in London this time round, you can catch Sissay in another city (tour dates below). Alternatively – you can purchase a copy of the script here.

If you are interested in Lemn Sissay, be sure to check out this post about his life and ambitions from Sissay’s Q&A session.

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