The Darkest Part of the Night: powerful tale of autism and prejudice
- Credit: Tristram Kenton
The Darkest Part of the Night
Kiln Theatre, Kilburn
"The world doesn’t like us acting out," is the sobering advice given by Dwight's Jamaican-born dad to his 11 year-old- son.
But Dwight struggles to modulate his feelings because he’s autistic and black, growing up in 80s Leeds at the height of inner city racism. In this tender ode to family life, Zodwa Nyoni expertly couches the political within the personal and Lee Phillips stuns in the lead role.
The opening fuses past and present. Fifty-something Dwight (Phillips is decades younger and unshakably boyish despite the funeral attire) and his older sister Shirley are mourning the death of their adored mum, Josephine. Childhood friend Calvin is married to Shirley, a Deputy Headteacher, and they look after Dwight.
Like a mischievous imp, Shirley’s 13 year-old self springs into action from behind the tangerine sofa of their childhood living room (Jean Chan's set is brilliant – a drinks trolley replete with spirits and a pineapple alongside banked up boom boxes), urging Dwight to hurry up as their indomitable, hard-working mum has entrusted them to do the school run unaccompanied.
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Dad Leroy can’t find enough work and gets sidetracked by local activists. Fiercely intelligent, Shirley is committed to protecting her brother from school bullies, not least from their racist Headteacher Mr Campbell. But prejudice is everywhere so when Dwight goes missing and is incarcerated in a secure hospital, the prognosis isn’t good. It’s up to their mother to save Dwight as she refuses to accept the limited medical understanding of autism.
Performances are outstanding. The chemistry between Brianna Douglas as young Shirley, Nadia Williams as Josephine, and Phillips is a joy as they zip around their home dusting off the records Dwight adores, helping him brush his hair just the way he likes. Even Hannah Morrish finds depth and wit in the secondary character of their social worker, and Andrew French as Leroy ensures his speech about displacement is genuinely touching.
Black identity, the healthcare system, neurodivergence. Nyoni packs weighty issues into two and a half hours and only occasionally overloads the dialogue, while director Nancy Medina allows the love to shine.
The Darkest Part of the Night runs at Kiln Theatre, Kilburn until August 13. https://kilntheatre.com/whats-on/the-darkest-part-of-the-night/