"Awe-struck and slightly suspicious," was Norman Mark Greenwood's reaction to seeing his first black person.
He was 10 years old, growing up in suburban Lancashire and already aware of the 'battalio of phrases' white people used when confronted with race.
'We're all colour-blind here; we're all the same,' his foster parents would say, but Norman started to ask himself why they were denying his difference.
"These phrases were hiding something, and that something was me," Norman, who has since discovered his real name, says.
"All I knew was that when you try to hide something,usually that means that it's a negative thing, something not to be talked about."
Eight years later, no longer a minor and free to leave foster care, Norman stared down at his birth certificate for the first time.
"It was crazy,but great," says Lemn Sissay, 41. "It was the only truth I knew and it was all in a name."
The poetry, plays and performance which have since arisen from Lemn's search for his family,identity and desire to carry on have brought inspiration beyond bounds.
His words are cast in sculpture in the streets of Manchester and even Prince Charles has passed on his compliments.
Discussing his upcoming play, Why I Don't Hate White People, now on at Hammersmith's Lyric Theatre, he says: "The title may sound serious, but laughter is a big part of this play. I'm like a detective trying to go into my past to find where I first engaged with race."
The earliest memory of seeing a black person may have been at the age of 10, but it was not until 17
that a relationship with another black person began.
"I realised that if I felt suspicious - imagine how a white community in Lancashire might feel," Lemn says. Understanding is the key to the humour,as well as the more sinister truth it contains.
"Lots of decisions are taken with this fear of the unknown in mind," he says.
"Whether it be my foster parents who said 'When in Rome, do as the Romans do,' or policy-makers in government."
Utterly unafraid to publicly confront his demons, expect as honest an exploration of these themes as you're ever likely to hear.
Lemn's 2004 play Something Dark explored the ing journey to find his Ethiopian mother, ultimately discovering that his life was the consequence of rape.
His Eritrean father had been a
pilot, impregnating his mother while studying in England, but by the time Lemn had tracked him down in 1995, only the fragments of his plane on an east African hillside were left.
Lemn's volatile performance style, sometimes bouncing off the walls in a call for clarity,has also pushed the boundaries of exposure.
"Do I 'give 'em what they want' or try to push myself out of my comfort zone and see if I can find original ground?" Lemn asks rhetorically.
"I want to live in that place where you think without thinking,where you speak without compromise, even if it doesn't make perfect sense at that stage in your life."
[25cf] Why I Don't Hate White People,by Lemn Sissay, is at the Lyric Theatre, Lyric Square, Hammersmith until February 14. £12/10. 8pm.
Call 0871 2211 729.
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