Playwright gets down and dirty

17 October 2010 - 02:00 By unknown

British writer/ poet/performer Lemn Sissay, recently named a Member of Order of the British Empire for his literary work, has a special connection with South Africa.

Not only has he visited and performed here regularly over the past 15 years - including a stay on Robben Island to prepare for a tour with local and international poets and musicians - but he shares with the country "an incredible story about triumphalism through oppression".

So he says it's an honour to perform his autobiographical play, Something Dark, "to a culture that you know will receive it on its deeper base notes, as well as its lighter notes".

Of Ethiopian descent, Sissay was born in England and fostered by white parents until the age of 11 "on the basis that I was a message from their God and would go back to Africa as a missionary to save African babies".

Instead of the name that was on his birth certificate, he was called Norman Mark Greenwood, Norman being the social worker's name.

Fostering didn't work and, from the age of 11 to 18, he was shuttled between children's homes, always feeling he had "no next of skin", as he puts it in one of his poems.

By the age of 32, he had found his biological family and reached some kind of reconciliation with his past.

He always wanted to tell his own "down-and-dirty" story. "There was a perception that I had achieved success, but success, to me, is to look in the mirror and say 'You're all right, after everything you've been through.'"

He performed his tale in SA at last year's National Arts Festival and says, via telephone from the UK, "the overriding response was emotional - it seemed the audience laughed and cried, and there was a sense of wonder and recognition at the central character's experiences.

"South Africans get the full gamut of Something Dark - it's an incredible thing for me. Definitely, coming to Africa is coming home, not in a rootsy, Lion King way, but in a profound way that includes as much resolution as it does trauma. If we don't tell our stories, they didn't happen."

By expressing painful things that are perhaps not meant to be articulated, Sissay "found a reason to live, and it's art. The action of creating art is the reason for life. You need a reason to realise what's good in life, and my experience has led me to that, but it doesn't have to be a negative experience."

He says his writing is definitely not cathartic. "If you need therapy, don't take it out on the freaking audience. (A play) is meant to be a piece of art, of artistic expression, not a messed-up person who wants to put their stuff on others."