19 March 2010

Us and Lemn

Poet, playwright and performer Lemn Sissay has many ties with Manchester. He moved to the city when he was 18, worked at Commonword publishers on Mount Street, and has made his mark on the place quite literally, with poems like Flags embedded as tiles in the pavement of Tib Street in the Northern Quarter and Hardys Well and Rain painted on the sides of buildings marking each end of Rusholme (I regularly got my tea from Gemini when I was a first-year student and couldn't cook, by the way. Don't tell my mum). Back in 1991 or maybe 1992 - a long long time ago, anyway - my friend Matt and I took one of those magical-mystery-tour-buzzes-that-go-all-round-the-houses-and-take-about-half-a-day out to far-flung Wythenshawe to hear Lemn do a poetry reading at the Forum. I've never been back, but that's not Lemn's fault; I seem to remember he was pretty good.

At the moment, Lemn lives in that there London, where he's artist in residence at the achingly cool Southbank Centre. In fact, he set up the Centre's GPS Global Poetry System, which is a bit like the rainy city's own Rainy City Stories (featuring a poem by yours truly), only on a grander scale. His other recent activity includes accepting an MBE in the New Year's Honours List. Hark on him.

Lemn is currently in Manchester on a flying visit, touring his new John E McGrath-directed solo performance Why I Don't Hate White People, on at Contact today (Friday) and tomorrow (Saturday) at 8pm. There's also a special performance being recorded for Radio 4 on Sunday at 6.30pm, which you can get tickets for by calling 0161 244 2455.

The show is quite good, too. Nothing to do with poetry (although there is some poetic language), it's a personal account of Lemn's "journey of discovery" exploring the race-related issues of being deserted by his birth family, shunned by his foster family, alienated by social services and sidelined by society, but coming out the other side pretty well adjusted. There are thought-provoking moments, uncomfortable silences, serious internal discussions, documentary snippets. There's a stark white stage with three barriers, one a door. There's the use of white noise, the fuzz of a TV screen after the programming ends and the national anthem has long since droned away. There are some clever projections and creative sound effects, even if the timing was a bit off on the first night. But, importantly, it's not preachy or painful; it's all done with a huge dose of cheeky humour, self-directed fun-poking, silly impressions and daft accents, winks to the audience and potentially offensive jokes. And that's part of the point: Sissay is highly critical of political correctness, funded projects to tackle so-called problems, and the whole language of equality, diversity, integrity... All in all, it's an interesting hour that leaves you entertained and educated in equal measure.

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