During the after-show questions, writer, director and performer Akpore Uzoh is absolutely unequivocal about why he made this show: frustration. The certainty of his intentions is felt constantly throughout the play, from the achingly painful silences in which he repetitively performs the daily routine of prison life to the poetry recitals that curve into Black history, summoning Africa as he dances in dim light around his cell. There is not a moment of this play that is unconsidered, not a single breath is added or removed from the total necessity of the one-man performer’s every word.
Amari, a young Black man engaged to an artist and setting up his own business, is stopped by the police on his way home from a meeting. The scene is quick, blurred, disappearing into the darkness surrounding the one spotlight that keeps him visible to police eyes, in radical contrast to the slow and funny scenes when he was with his fiancée and his family earlier that day.
We are then taken through the absurd dead-ends and inexplicable absences of the law. The experience is not spectacularized in a flashy way. We are in a grim interview room, confused and sweaty. Noise is cleverly used to show the anger of this situation, unable to find anything out or to know why he is here, his voice charges roughly and then dampens into a whisper.
Constant parallels are drawn, developing throughout the 80 minute play. In the first scene he is looking for a blue coat, asking his artist fiancée where it is, and then the blue lights start flashing. There is colour everywhere. So his grey prison tracksuit, with no other props than a white table, a white piece of paper and the white pills he has to take, shines fiercely against the colours of the world before this. Contrasts are also developed in the presence and absence of other characters, whose voices eventually appear after the multiform loneliness of the character, imprisoned and alone on stage.
The greatest build-up in the play is that of naming. In the abstract scenes that break the prison bars and summon Black history we see how the names of Africans were removed when they were enslaved. It is hugely important, then, that Amari remembers the name of every police officer involved in arresting and framing him. The names he remembers, though, are their official names, using their title and surname: PC Smith, etc. For his family he uses first names, and the names are African. The character himself, though, is not given a name for most of the play. Until, in a powerful multimedia scene involving dance, music and physical theatre, he grasps a resolute idea of his historical connections, to his family, to Africa, that transcend the prison walls, and then we hear his full African name.
The only problem that might be suggested with the emancipatory intention of the play is its focus on the innocence of the character. When a Black person is killed by the police, lots of fuss is made in the media about whether they were innocent, which suggests that it is fine to kill someone who has committed a crime and the killing is only problematic if the person had not stolen something or got into a fight. The fact that Amari’s innocence is so central to the story could take something away from the play’s criticism of racism and incarceration. The treatment he receives would still be violently racist and deeply unjust even if he had committed a crime.
‘ADITL: A Day in the Life’ covers every base: it is moving, clever, physical, poetic, funny, politically powerful and constantly entertaining. Uzoh’s performance leaves you in awe, stunned at his ability to do everything and maintain such energy for 80 minutes. This is a play that cannot be missed if you are interested in contemporary politics and multimedia art. It says so much about what can be done with so little. Just a person, a table and a chair, but the queasy feeling of seeing such a monumental attack on injustice sticks around for a long time.
ADITL: A Day in the Life is on at the Arcola Theatre, Dalston, from 3-6 March, 8pm. £15/12.
Review by Elliot C. Mason.