A week ago, the Bush theatre asked six writers for their dramatised responses to the killing of George Floyd in Minnesota, the global protests that followed and the state society is in now. These protest plays, curated by Daniel Bailey, are the result of that quickfire commission. Combining political theatre with digital technology, they are available across the Bush’s social media platforms, including Twitter and Instagram, and on YouTube. They range in length from one to nine minutes and are honest, impactful pieces that turn life, as it is happening, into story – and sometimes song.
Just as in the case of Channel Four’s week-long series of short films, Take Your Knee Off My Neck, these works are by black British (or mixed-heritage) writers. Issues range from the use of the N-word to negotiating mixed-heritage identity and the emotional load of having to articulate the trauma caused by racism over and over again, the last of which is expressed in Benedict Lombe’s direct address, Do You Hear Us Now?
Fehinti Balogun, who appears in Michaela Coel’s BBC/HBO series I May Destroy You, bases his film, You Just Don’t Get it – And it Hurts, on a recent conversation with a friend. It is a series of text messages between Chelsea, who is white, and an unnamed black friend. They begin debating Chelsea’s use of the N-word while singing along to a rap song in a predominantly white crowd. Chelsea promises to listen to her friend’s objections open-mindedly (“I won’t be offended”) but is unwilling to examine her values, clinging to an argument around her right to free speech. It is noxious everyday racism and their conversation, played out with the typing and erasing of words, is both intellectually engaging and emotive, right until Chelsea’s final, undermining text.
Roy Williams’s film, Black, packs another punch at just over a minute long. Performed by Aaron Pierre, it features a man in internal, anguished dialogue with himself as he tries to fight his fear of attending a protest rally: “I’m scared, no word of a lie … Why they have to beat us like that?” It is a moving snapshot of vulnerable black masculinity in light of Floyd’s killing and the increased threat felt by black men in Britain. The Fire This Time is a rap by Kalungi Ssebandeke (featuring Anoushka Lucas) and a more straight-up protest song against police violence. “You will no longer kill us,” sings Ssebandeke against footage of street protests, riots and arrests.
In Hey Kid, Matilda Ibini speaks to a photographic montage of her younger selves: “Hold on to your voice, kid,” Ibini tells the child in a nursery school pinafore. “People will tell you that everything about you is wrong … Please do not stay silent.” It is both a warning of the structural racism that awaits this child and a call to arms, with echoes of the consciousness-raising letters written by James Baldwin to his young nephew in 1962 and Ta-Nehisi Coates to his son in 2015.
Alongside the pain and anger, a sense of exhaustion is also expressed in several films at the repeated cycles of protest at white-on-black violence over the decades. Anoushka Lucas, in Your Work, which is delivered partly in song, sings: “All the things I’ve heard before are coming around again,” while Lombe is more explicit: “After black squares and hashtags and outrage, will you still show up?”
It is a powerful question asked of the world and it remains unanswered.