The first year of university calls to mind fresh starts, new horizons — and an escape from what’s come before. Weaving fluidly between present and past, Kwame Owusu’s beautifully crafted Dreaming and Drowning unpacks the experience of a sensitive first-year literature student as he comes of age, discovering his place in a flawed institution and overcoming the internal unrest that threatens to overwhelm him.
Charting the transition of Malachi (an endlessly watchable Tienne Simon) as he prepares for a life devoted to reading and discussing books, the script moves between the internal poetic style of his dreams, and a bouncy, lean and character-driven waking narrative. To be in a place where he gets to read all day is a dream come true — and yet, what he finds are awkward social situations, diatribes on race by entitled white students, and a pervading sense that something is about to break through the walls and swallow him whole.
Simon carries the exposed nerve of Malachi’s rich inner life with physical exuberance, humour and ease, filling the Bush’s intimate studio space with an emotional honesty that pulls us in as he finds his people and recovers from a painful relationship. Each of the supporting characters, from the deep-voiced and jaw-droppingly sexy president of Black Queer Society to the onerous and pretentious seminar posh-boy, is embodied in an impressively transformative display of character acting, taking us through tropes of class, race and regional identity. The attention to detail in both the writing and performance is crystal clear, and the connection between Malachi’s narrative voice and Owusu’s observational precision feel incredibly strong.
Discussions of the bleak wonder of T.S. Eliot, the heightened transfigurations of fantasy, and the relationship between voice and racial identity in black authors’ work all infuse the narrative, reinforcing a heartfelt intellectual joy that never feels external to the story’s drive. The only point at which the richness of the language risks overtaking the stage action is in Malachi’s climactic encounter with the beast of his nightmares. Small but impactful set reveals and some well-placed movement sequences contribute to the story’s excavation of unconscious forces, but a shift in the nature of the threat, and slightly over-described confrontation loses some of the sensual poetry that this moment establishes.
There is a lot being explored here, in a piece that powerfully reinstates the urgency of storytelling in the formation of identity. Poetry, campus life and comedy blend into an emotionally moving concoction, exploring a black, queer student’s experience with great skill. The denouement is pleasingly open and optimistic for a play that goes to some very difficult places, and Dreaming and Drowning succeeds in taking us on a journey through the healing process of a broken heart, and a mind very much open to the expansive possibilities of language.
Dreaming and Drowning is at Bush Theatre until 5th January 2024