The music is present, you just have to hear it. That’s the strap-line for this spirited and uplifting coming-of-age debut from rapper and actor Kema Sikazwe. Shine is a story about self-belief that charts Sikazwe’s personal journey from Zimbabwe to Newcastle’s west end to the stage at Live Theatre.
I’d heard a lot about Shine before the press night. Sikazwe is somewhat of a local hero in the North East, known alternatively as Kema Kay, and not least for his role as China in Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake. In his professional life, he delivers workshops to young people and encourages them to build their confidence through music. It’s appropriate, then, that Shine is about how Sikazwe used his own creativity and inner strength to overcome the challenges that he faced growing up in a world that wasn’t necessarily kind or accepting.
Shine is an ambitious production with original music that pushes the narrative forward. Often, when sat in a theatre you can sense the minutes drag. You can feel the discomfort in the room; the surreptitious checking of watches, the shuffling in seats. But there was little of that here as Sikazwe’s energy and charm held the audience’s attention for the full 70 minutes. Nick Rogerson’s lighting design helps dictate the fluctuating moods of the piece, which in parts are cinematic in their shift. The use of two microphones and movement means the show remains interesting and dynamic.
For a local audience, there is a pleasure to be found in the regional specifics of Shine. There’s levity in the way Sikazwe explores the culture shock of arriving in Newcastle upon Tyne. He describes wrestling with the Geordie accent and being baffled by colloquialisms like ‘y’alreet wor kid!’ and ‘pure radge!’ His observations of school yard cliques are sharp and humourful. There’s an inspired section where he demonstrates the musical phenomenon of happy hardcore. I’m in no doubt these jokes will resonate with anyone who grew up here, with anyone who remembers — who can forget?! — the legacy of makina and New Monkey. These funny moments, however, are undercut by recollections of bullying and provocation and racism. It’s an urgent reminder of how much Sikazwe has had to overcome to get where he is today.
Although Shine is a regional story from a regional voice, there’s a universality to what is being expressed on stage. Finding your identity, coming from a fractured family or navigating a turbulent adolescence — these themes have a broad, relatable appeal. I can see how Shine will move the young people who see it and, looking around at the end, I do see a different crowd to usual. It’s great that Live Theatre are programming and supporting young artists who push against the status-quo. A show like Shine seems indicative of positive change towards theatre as a space for everyone.
There is some room for Shine to improve — repetition and rhetorical questions that could be cut to the benefit of a tighter, more polished performance. The ending is a bit abrupt (perhaps because Sikazwe, at only 25, does not have all the answers himself yet). Having said that, as a first show from an emerging talent it’s a truly impressive feat with space to grow into something lasting and luminous.
After seeing Shine, I left with a sense of hope for the future. It’s impossible to resist Sikazwe’s warmth and positivity. In uncertain times like these, to find light in darkness is a message of inspiration that we all need.