This is the number one theatre festival in Southern Africa. The closest comparison to the Grahamstown festival would be Edinburgh. And the story I am telling here is my life
story. It is called Something Dark and It is directed by John McGrath who is now the artistic director of The National Theatre of Wales. I am here with producer Gill Lloyd of Artsadmin and Technical Manager Anna Cole.
Since writing the play and performing it round Britian and the world my father’s side of the family, whom I spent my adult life in search of, have cut me off. I had known them less than five years and invited them to see the play in Vancouver, Canada. They decided not to come and the tale of the play gathered momentum within their familial structures. It all got a bit Salman Rushdie. You may find reference to all of this in the blog by using the blog search engine.
This twist in the tail drained the life out of me and I gave in. After reading various poison penned hate filled correspondences from brothers and sisters aunts and uncles from America I decided not to do the play again and told them as much. This was about two years ago. But they still refuse to speak to me. I had mentioned my mothers accusation and my fathers name. This was the horror for them. My father is dead, see. It is the truth as it presented itself. Now contact is vicious and sporadic. A year ago one of my sisters on Christmas eve sent me an email out of the blue. It read check your DNA! It was spiteful and calculated. All of this because of a play where I mention my mother’s accusation upon my father’s name and the incredible and debilitating effect it had upon me. I believe her. And I believe her for various specific and factual reasons.
My name Lemn means why. Lemn is an unusual name for Ethiopian’s as Why would be to the English. I have a letter dated 1968 where my mother says I want his (second) name to be Giday not Sissay. It is tradition that the child’s second name be the fathers first. Giday is my fathers first name. But because my mother was in England alone my second name became Sissay which is her second name. So I became Lemn Sissay whereas it should have been Lemn Giday…. Why Giday.
I received threats from an aunt who is head of gender studies (the irony of it) in an
American university. I know people she wrote. One brother from the states told me he was having me watched. And I saw the people at my poetry readings in England… The only time I have ever uncontrollably cried on stage was in the midst of this at The Queen Elizabeth Hall in October 2006 reading a poem called Mourning Breaks as I saw two Ethiopian men slouched arrogantly in the audience…
The irony is that Something Dark had toured for years up until then. It was also made
into a radio play and broadcast to the nation on The BBC. And the revelation/accusation had never been a secret from my fathers side of the family. I told them when I met them
– face to face. I was no longer going to be a secret. No-one commented and the more I knew my father the more I investigated my mother the more I knew it to be true. All this is less the fact of my name which was given to me when my mother was alone in another country in 1967. All this less the fact of my mother saying it in 1968 in print. I believe the woman. Take that to your gender studies.
So what of now? This is the first time I have done the play since then and to a sold out
audience at the greatest theatre festival in Southern Africa I decided to change his name. I could hear the audience behind the curtains. In an innocuous step I sprained my ankle. At least it felt like a sprain as pain shot through my foot. I was in agony. The music started and it was time to walk on stage. I tried not to hobble and to focus on the job. I walked to centre stage from stage right, turned and looked at the audience and just as I was about to speak the lights switched off. Perfect time to deliver the first line and it is a question. Dark? In darkness always comes the question where is the light?” The pain disappeared.
In rehearsal and in the play this evening a bat flew down from the rafters. It dived in and out of the stage lights castingshadows around me like dark ribbons at the end of a distant kite. It circled me and then disappeared – a spirit directed by an invisible kite runner. I walked off stage an hour and ten minutes later to a standing ovation in a country that
has its fair share of traumatic stories of conflict and resolution. I am therefore honoured. The last lines of the play resonated in my head as I stood in the mirror of the dressing room Secrets are the stones that sink the boat. Take them out. Look at them. Throw them out and… float.