The Dark – Traverse Theatre

Prospective spectators of Fuel and Overhouse’s ‘The Dark’: be prepared. Darkness it promises and dark subjects it delivers. This performance is worth every ounce of spotlighting that can be cast upon it. Go to see it, I urge you. ‘The Dark’ balances between extremes of terror and poignancy, capturing the humanity and inhumanity of a country ravaged by unrest and corrupt leadership. It is a beautifully-told, thoroughly engaging tale, and a vital reminder of the role played by spectators in stories of migration, persecution, and trauma.

I certainly had been “in the dark” about the regime of Idi Amin in 1970s Uganda – about the hundreds of thousands of lives lost, and the countless others who fled the country in fear of becoming part of that statistic. Playwright Nick Makoha was one such migrant, fleeing danger in the dead of night and leaving behind his father, grandparents, and home. He was four years old when his mother bribed a driver for two seats on a matatu (minibus) and smuggled her son out of Kampala in the hope of finding a safer world for him in Britain.

The play presents a multitude of characters – passengers on the minibus, guards at the checkpoint, women leading rebel forces – all played by two extraordinarily talented actors: Michael Balogun and Akiya Henry. Together, the capsule cast recount the stories of each person they encounter, seamlessly becoming first an old man, then a pregnant woman, and then four year old Nick. But the most important character, perhaps, the one for whom (at least in part) the play exists, is the viewer, and it is a role that sits uncomfortably on the shoulders of most.

The play begins with an address to the audience: a “hello” from the adult Nick, who, undeterred by the audience’s silence, prompts again for a response. A conversation of sorts begins. The audience, surprised by the interaction, obey when Nick tells them to close their eyes and listen. He commences his story, setting the scene in the audience’s minds with images of bodies by the road and graves half-dug. “A girl my age is a ghost,” he says and the theatre is shocked into a silence that continues throughout the play. From behind closed eyelids the audience feel themselves being brought into Nick’s world. They won’t be released until long after the lights come back up.

Later, Nick checks up on the audience, asking them how they’re doing. The effect is unsettling: during this play a man will be ordered to kill his pregnant wife, and a child soldier “a head taller” than four-year-old Nick will shoot three men to protect the migrants, yet the actor is pausing to consider the audience’s well-being. In fact, I wasn’t holding up well – I had abandoned any hope of retaining composure and was leaking tears into my sleeve. I have rarely experienced such silence as that felt during the most disquieting of the scenes, or sensed an audience so captivated that each member could have been entirely alone in the darkness of the auditorium.

This is not to say that the play is harrowing from start to finish. Moments of humour were plentiful, and the acting was so exceptional that even small interactions between characters were vibrant and engaging. The set was fantastically designed and utilised, with the bus becoming a house, a boat, and finally an immigration centre. Overall, the performance was hard to fault, with the absolute credibility of the world-building leading to a final, heartrending blow for both Nick and the audience:

In the immigration centre, a British woman leans over a desk, leering at an invisible Nick. What a story, she says, unenthusiastically: “Seems to me the only question is whether I believe it.” As the lights go down on her artificially wide grin, the audience is irrevocably implicated in her callous dismissal of the trauma and tragedy of the migrant’s journey. Despite following Nick and his mother on their exodus from Uganda and despite Nick’s integration of the audience into the story, we are forced to realise that it is us, the spectators, who have the ultimate say in the safety of asylum seekers, and the power to erase their stories from the eyes of the world. We leave Nick in the dark, but it is up to us to illuminate others fleeing similar plights.

Once again, I urge you to go to this play if you are lucky enough to have it performed nearby. It is not an easy story to hear, but it is a story that deserves, irrefutably, to emerge from the dark and the silence, and to be seen and heard across the world.


PHOTOS: Traverse Theatre

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Jess Cowie

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