Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh
It's a long way from Zambia to Newcastle for Kema Sikazwe, aka Kema Kay, the UK raised rapper turned actor, whose profile has been very much on the upturn since his appearance in Ken Loach's era defining film, I, Daniel Blake. As he tells it over an hour of autobiographical storytelling peppered with his own songs, Sikazwe arrives in the rough and tumble of one of Tyneside's less salubrious areas aged three. From here he is thrown into the deep end of playground bullying and everyday racism until he discovers a music to call his own as a survival mechanism to weather the storm.
Despite the show's title, taken from the Zambian meaning of Sikazwe's name, there is light and shade aplenty in his story, told in a dynamic but engagingly gentle manner in Graeme Thompson's production for Live Theatre Newcastle. Using a pair of microphones set against patterns of ever-pulsating neon strip lights on Emma Bailey's set, Sikazwe's tale of an alienated immigrant who transcends his lot to find his muse is more urgent than ever in the volatile state of today's political climate.
Sikazwe invests all this with such first-hand humanity and bucket loads of charm that any polemical intent is a mere underscore. There's a sweetness too to some of his songs, which move from anger and confusion to a kind of redemption as his teenage self finds his voice both physically and metaphorically.
Sikazwe’s natural audience here are those from the sort of inner city youth clubs he sprang from, and one hopes such a demographic get to lap up Sikazwe's wisdom during the show’s short run this weekend, and that they can see how he turned his life around. If they do, the unmitigated joy of seeing Sikazwe telling it how things are is something to be savoured.
The Herald, May 17th 2019