Review: We Need New Names, Brixton House

A blistering look at Mugabe’s Zimbabwe is given theatrical light in We Need New Names at Brixton House

“Y’all need to stop with all that tribal shit”

Bringing a much-neglected theatrical perspective to UK theatres, NoViolet Bulawayo’s Booker-shortlisted novel We Need New Names has been adapted here for the stage by Mufaro Makubika. It really is a play of two halves, the first detailing a childhood blithely unaware of the pernicious effects of Robert Mugabe’s regime on Zimbabwean society, the second exploring the trials of the African immigrant experience in the US.

The connecting thread is Darling, performed with sunshine brightness by Lukwesa Mwamba. She leads her childhood friends in dancing and games which inevitably but unthinkingly draw from the things happening around them, it’s just that it is lynching and robberies that are their inspiration. That normalisation is most horrifyingly depicted by one of their number, the 11 year old Chipo, being pregnant, allowing them to play doctors and nurses….

Darling’s dreams of joining her aunt in Michigan come true after the interval, once she’s a teenager. And here, Monique Touko’s production shifts gears significantly into a gritty family drama that tracks the various challenges of the diasporic experience – dreams not matching reality, not being able to return to where you came from, the elusive notion of home itself. It is markedly, deliberately, different but it still sits a little oddly as an audience member.

The production is beautifully designed by Ingrid Hu though, real purpose to every choice made, from white handprints bersmirching black ground and cloudbursts of chalk announcing white characters, to the physicality of Ricardo da Silva’s movement work allowing the company to slip so effortlessly between a wide range of characters. A fascinating play but one which I wanted more engagement with as a cohesive whole.

Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes (with interval)
Photo: Robert Day
We Need New Names is booking at Brixton House until 6th May, then tours the UK through 10th June

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