A semi-autobiographical piece of writing, Nick Makoha’s The Dark centres on one night in November 1978 and follows the journey of a four-year-old and his mother as they escape a war-torn Uganda under the vicious rule of Idi Amin.
Most of the action takes place on a matutu – ‘bus’, which enables us to meet a wide range of characters. With only two actors, The Dark immediately centres on what the writer refers to as the ‘binary of human connection’, making us look beyond the mother-son relationship. Although a two-actor play may seem ambitious, under director Roy Alexander Weise’s (The Mountaintop, Nine Night) careful guidance, Michael Balogun and Akiya Henry smoothly shift from character to character. This careful morphing is managed through subtle mannerisms with Henry in particular, skilfully shifting from a pregnant biscuit-seller to the disgruntled brother of the matutu driver. Their rapid switching is very impressive especially in moments when Balogun regresses from playing a grown man to the wide-eyed young boy submerged in a world of conflict. At times it was dizzying to keep track of character development with some of the less sketched characters, but perhaps the excessive use of multi-roling was to ensure that the story of the community was centred at the dramatic heart of this play, enabling the audience to see how Idi Aman’s rule affected a whole country.
Makoha’s poem Stone, which centres on the writer’s exodus from Uganda, triggered the conception of this play, and one can see how The Dark infuses poetry and theatre together through the use of melodic language. The poetic fluidity of the language was further enhanced by the use of a projector, which flickered intimate portraits on the stage. Like Stone, The Dark is also love-letter to Makoha’s mother, championing and celebrating black womanhood. This is reflected in the strong presence of women in the play, which for me effectively mirrored the importance African women have within their own families and the wider community. The set allows for a raw performance with Rajha Shakiry’s design effectively conjuring the cramped space of the matatu with bus seats and a cluttered writing desk. The simplicity of the set design is nicely complemented by soft and hazy lightning from Neill Brinkworth, with contrasting focused backlights adding a dull, ruddy ambience.
With over 16.5 million displaced people in the world (figures from Oxfordshire-based charity Asylum Welcome), the play’s true success is its individualised telling of a refugee story. This is particularly powerful given the current climate in the Britain at present with the Windrush crisis, and the atmosphere surrounding Brexit. From its opening, Makoha urges us to open our hearts to this story by asking the audience to close their eyes and surrender themselves to the story. We are welcomed into the play as the narrator expresses his gratitude for our journey to this destination, but at the end this warm welcome reversed, and it is their journey out of Uganda that alienates them once they land at Heathrow. When the immigration officer tells the young boy to “go and join the others”, Makoha succinctly calls our attention to the othering and politicisation of refugees, who are either ignored or voyeuristically watched (like the white observer in the play who is constantly recording on his dictaphone).
The ending of the play was rather abrupt, but that could be a conscious decision from the playwright to ‘welcome’ the boy and his mother to the harsh reality of being refugees in the UK. The strength of the lightning can be seen in these closing moments, as the young boy arrives at British immigration from the familiar semi-darkness to be scrutinised beneath the harsh, unwelcoming glare of halogens.