Jhis drama about family, race, and autism opens in a whirlwind of disorientation. One character grabs a purse and doesn’t let go, another angrily tries to pull it away, and a girl runs across the stage and then disappears again. Scenes change quickly and a large circular floor, with a vinyl record design by Jean Chan, spins in the center to snippets of music.
Discombobulations effectively takes us into the life and mind of Dwight (Lee Phillips), whose autism goes undiagnosed for part of his childhood. Phillips goes from the role of 11-year-old Dwight, growing up with his black British family in Leeds, to a modern-day grown man struggling with his jumble of memories.
Zodwa Nyoni’s hard-hitting piece is framed by a burial in the present and a series of events in 1981 when Dwight’s autism was yet to be identified or understood. Imaginatively directed by Nancy Medina, this play is a study of autism in a time of overt racial hostility, from police bias to bias within social services. As we begin to see more plays about autism, it is much rarer to see its intersections with race and family, as we see here dramatized to powerful effect.
Past scenes feature a family home in Chapeltown where Dwight’s 13-year-old sister, Shirley (Brianna Douglas), craves more attention; his father (Andrew French) has just lost his job at the factory; and his mother (Nadia Williams) deals with the stress of her son’s troubles while keeping everything else afloat. The plot takes heartbreaking turns after a visit from a social worker and Dwight is arrested by a policeman in the street and detained under the Mental Health Act.
The play evokes a host of meaty themes, some of which have no time to develop more fully, including Dwight’s strained relationship with his father, who warns he cannot afford to “play” in a world balanced against black men. (“They’ll put you down every chance they get. You can’t do all that screaming”) and Shirley’s resentment of the energy her condition demands of the family, as well as her subsequent guilt.
The characterization is full of warmth but feels too flat at times and it generally feels like a piece trying to do too much at once. The script is sometimes a bit unsubtle and too plot-driven. Williams, who also plays eldest Shirley, gives a particularly spirited performance as the mother. It takes a while to acclimate to Phillips’ performance when playing Dwight as a child, but it’s a good, slow-burning portrayal, and he’s especially gripping in the few still scenes or when he’s listens to his family’s records.
In fact, the piece really comes alive in its sound and brings sudden bursts of light – when Dwight dances to the records, listens to the radio, or dances with his mother. These moments of liberation are a joyous counterweight to the darkness of the drama.