Despite its best intentions Zodwa Nyoni’s enlightening but often fragmented play The Darkest Part Of The Night, which grapples with undiagnosed autism and institutional racism in 1980s Leeds, is a bit of a hotchpotch.
The drama is set in Leeds during modern day, and between June – August 1981. It is based on Nyoni’s own childhood experiences as a default carer for a sister with a learning disability.
The Darkest Part of The Night paints an unforgiving picture of ineffective social services, and racism within 1980s British educational and police services.
The play opens in the present day as brother and sister, Shirley and Dwight, are about to attend the funeral of their mother, Josephine. They both have different memories of their upbringing in 1980s Chapeltown, Leeds, at the height of race riots, high unemployment and systemic poverty.
Dwight was struggling as a young black boy with undiagnosed autism in a society where he is mainly misunderstood. While Shirley was trying to break away from confining expectations both at school and home, and has ambitions to change the system and be a head teacher.
Now both in their 50s, they bring together the splintered recollections of their past, and as they reconnect they try to move forward together.
For The Darkest Part Of The Night The Kiln have partnered up with Access All Areas, to support learning disabled and autistic artists. Throughout the play Nyoni’s stage directions allow for the actor playing Dwight (Lee Phillips), to stim openly to explore his character’s colliding memories as he is pulled back and forth between the past and present, and as he tries to navigate his grief and relationships. Stimming is recognised as repetitive interactions that may help an individual cope with emotions, and vary in intensity.
The Darkest Part Of The Night has some cumbersome structural flaws. The writing is occasionally uneven and plodding, the flashbacks are sometimes bewildering, and some scenes lack pace making the play feel a little too long. Nancy Medina’s clumpy direction fails to counteract this, and consequently the evening lacks the necessary momentum needed to give the drama a focused boost.
Central to the piece is a winning performance from Lee Phillips as Dwight. He is strongly supported by a delightfully energised delivery of the young Shirley by Brianna Douglas. Nadia Williams gives a powerhouse performance as the unwavering matriarch Josephine, and Hannah Morrish desolately captures the astounding ineptitude of 1980’s social worker Anna.
Jean Chan’s inventive set which has the central stage as an moving vinyl LP on a turntable, wistfully captures the musical threads that lift the show.