The first new names in Mufaro Makubika’s adaptation of NoViolet Bulawayo’s acclaimed novel come with children playing – a group of friends take on different identities for their games. The strong theatrical conceit, performed with conviction, elevates this coming-of-age story set in Zimbabwe. And the play gets better and better.
The cast perform as youths with a girl called Darling and her friends singing, laughing, and bickering. Director Monique Touko keeps the energy high and the mood light. The action is swift with lots of movement. But these games make an audience think too as the kids come across a suicide, chase after aid, or witness violence.
Darling has a sense of hope, depicted brilliantly by Lukwesa Mwamba, that pervades the playground scenes. The prospect of a move to America, for “pizza and Rhianna”, make her different. Mwamba brings her character’s charm, petulance, and courage to the stage and is ably accompanied by five other cast members.
The play packs more punch when we see Darling in Detroit. It may be depressingly predictable that her new life is hard. But Bulawayo brings emotional insight that Makubika makes strong drama from. More music, with original compositions from Tendai Humphrey Sitima, aids immeasurably.
A pincer movement punishes Darling who has trouble fitting in with new friends while becoming estranged from life back home. Relationships with an aunt and a grandfather figure are highlights, enhancing the focus on Darling’s experiences as a woman, bringing strong performances from Princess Khumalo and Kalungi Ssebandeke.
There is pressure for Darling to change her name to something “more” American. The dilemma is heart-wrenching, especially as we watch the predicament dawn on the innocent girl. It is Mwamba’s meticulous performance that grounds the show and makes the production special. Embodying a description of the character as “sunshine”, Mwamba makes the show’s strongest moments.
Until 6 May 2023 at Brixton House and then touring until 10 June 2023
Photo by Robert Day