Review by Rosie Holmes
With her novel We Need New Names, NoViolet Bulawayo became the first Black-African woman to be shortlisted for the Booker Prize, and this work has now been adapted for the stage. The story centres around themes of identity, belonging and race, and is as alive with energy as it tender and heart-breaking. Now showing at Brixton House Theatre, I had to wonder whether this story, as adapted by Mufaro Makubika, would translate as well on the stage?
Darling is 10 years old and spends her days playing with her friends in Mugabe’s unsettled Zimbabwe. On the edge of innocence, her and her friends play imaginary games with the unrelenting energy and joy you would expect from a group of 10-year-old friends. Their games, however, are often overshadowed by much more serious topics; their friend is pregnant despite being a child herself, they discover a dead body, and they witness the political unrest that surrounds them. They dream of the utopia of an idealised Western World, in which they imagine they will be friends with Rihanna and be safe under the leadership of Barrack Obama. That is until Darling finds herself living in America with her aunt Fostalina, and soon discovers that America is not quite the land of the free that she and her friends dreamed of.
In this piece, often harrowing events are told through the language of the young children who experience them. This is a clever narrative tool which proves heart breaking to watch, but also allows the story to be littered with humour as the children poke fun at each other and still manage to have fun amongst the chaos. It also adds a level of poignancy to the piece and highlights the difference of growing up in Zimbabwe to the western world. The pregnancy of their young friend, Chipo, is clearly something that affects the dynamic of the group, yet they don’t even have the language to discuss it properly and are unsure how the baby was even made. Instead playing a make-believe game of ‘doctors’ to try and remove the baby so Chipo can run as fast as them again.
Similarly, themes of the ‘white saviour’ are explored. Whilst appearing innocent, the children are acutely aware of the way in which the world often works. As they see NGO workers they smile, pose and dance for them not only to get the “good gifts” but because “it makes the white people feel better.” This perfectly encapsulates director Monique Touko’s aim to show a country that is going though a lot but is still full of heart.
This piece perfectly portrays the feeling of not belonging. We see Darling living in America, even with a slight American twang to her accent, yet still ridiculed for her pronunciation of words, and her hair. We also see a larger gap grow between herself and those left back home in Zimbabwe as they struggle to understand her new life. Her friends ridicule her for believing Zimbabwe is still her country after abandoning the country itself and her loved ones that remain, but her friends in America remind her that she is not American either; “America is for Americans, and you have to earn that.” Most poignantly, we see Darling longing to go back to her homeland after the death of her grandmother.
A clever use of costume, designed by Ingrid Hu, is used to illustrate Darling’s removal from the culture she grew up in. We see her in Zimbabwe in her best dress, yellow and frilled, reflective of the “sunshine in the darkness” she is referred to as. As she spends her first few years in America, we see her in a shorter, less frilly yellow dress, and by the time she is an American teenager in college, all that remains is a yellow top, teamed with denim and a varsity jacket. Still holding on to part of her heritage, but becoming more and more American. Wardrobe is used more sparingly for the rest of the cast, however all black outfits are effective in enabling the cast to quickly change character, as they often do, for example adding legwarmers or head scarves to signal the change.
One of the huge strengths of this show is its impeccable casting. Lukwesa Mwamba is wonderful as the young protagonist, Darling. Admittedly, it felt for the first 5 minutes or so like she may have been overacting, but as we settled into the story this was absolutely not the case. She plays the precocious 10-year-old with exuberance, perfectly transforming her accent as she spends longer and longer in America, and able to play a child full of hope and innocence (albeit waning) just as well as she does a jaded teenager or heartbroken girl longing for home. Munashe Chirisa and Kalungi Ssebandeke are wonderful too, excellently playing the youthful childhood friends of Darling with as much comedy (particularly their dance moves) as tenderness, which clearly affected the audience. In fact, the rest of the cast made up of Anashe Danai, Princess Khumalo and Lukwesa Mwamba were all brilliant. There were a few dodgy American accents, but when the storytelling is as good as it was here, that is easy to forgive!
We Need New Names is a wonderful look at the idea of belonging and is equally as heart-breaking as it is uplifting. A wonderful cast portray this story in a captivating way that clearly resonated with the audience. A standing ovation, tears and lively discussions after the show was testament to this. This play feels exactly like the kind of story that should be told across all of our theatres and I feel extremely privileged to have been able to see NoViolet Bulawayo’s deeply moving and funny story come to life on the stage.
We Need New Names is currently playing at Brixton House until Saturday 6th May, before it embarks on a UK tour. Tickets are available here - We Need New Names – Fifth Word