Kiln Theatre, London – until 13 August 2022
Guest reviewer: Lewis Wood
Autism isn’t a subject that theatre shies away from. Portraying Autism onstage can be difficult, but plays such as Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime have done an effective job of not only showing different ways that autistic people interpret the world, but also the difficulties resulting from neurotypical people’s reactions to Autism. A crucial factor of other prominent shows with autism, however? A white protagonist.
Directed by Nancy Medina, Zodwa Nyoni’s The Darkest Part of the Night shares the experience of a young, autistic Black boy, Dwight. The play follows his diagnostic process in 1980s Leeds. Tenderly by Lee Phillips, he is a young man full of joy – he loves to dance, listen to music, and play “the adventure game” with his sister Shirley, the rules of which are never really explained.
But these experiences do not define him. He lives in a world that already doesn’t trust Black young men, and seeks to bend him to their oppressive systems. His struggles in school are matched with a family that, whilst trying their best to fill his life with love, don’t fully understand his needs. His mother and father, played by the multi-roling Nadia Williams and Andrew French, are too focused on trying to make ends meet in a world that is systematically trying to shut them down. Dwight’s father Leroy’s deportation after an arrest for protesting is a particularly harrowing moment. This is especially the case given its discussion – it just mentioned that he’s going back to visit family in Jamaica.
The story opens in the modern day with the loss of Dwight’s mother, and is bookended with his struggle to let her go. Flowers in the shape of “Mum” linger through the rest of the action, forming part of a series of motifs. These include the giant revolving stage in the shape of a record of Mahalia Jackson’s Greatest Hits, a tower of speakers, and a set of doors at the back of the stage which aren’t used until a crucial moment in the play – when Dwight is taken to a psychiatric unit after running away through an unlocked back door at a friend’s house. It is later revealed to have been purposefully opened by his sister Shirley.
Brianna Douglas shines in her performance of Young Shirley. She highlights the real heart of this show – not just its touching portrayal of Autism or its commentary on racism in the care system, but the humour laced throughout. This is what makes the show feel real. The family love each other. They laugh, they sing. Their world is tough but they get through it together. Sometimes the play feels a bit disjointed, which the use of multiple timelines doesn’t help, but there is a real heart that makes it a joy to watch.
The Darkest Part of the Night runs through 13 August.
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