The brutal murder of George Floyd, a black man, by Minneapolis police on 25 May 2020 sparked mass protests across the world. His final desperate words “I can’t breathe” were chanted by marchers and written on placards. So also were the names of others killed by US police. In the UK, demonstrations added the names of UK black people killed in police custody.
Theatres and other arts organisations published statements of support for Black Lives Matter (BLM). Many of them had already mounted plays that exposed the horrific experience of being black in a system that treated their lives so carelessly.
One of the first protests that brought BLM to international prominence was the killing by police of Michael Brown in Ferguson. The events are the setting for Apphia Campbell and Meredith Yarbrough’s inspiring play Woke in which the story of a young black woman student Ambrosia being politicised by the 2014 protests is paralleled with the account of the 1977 false conviction for murder of the Black Panther Assata Shakur.
The corruption and racism of Ferguson’s militarised police is a shock to Ambrosia, who, from being a sceptic of the need to protest, is driven by events to link arms with others defiantly chanting “Black Lives Matter” and singing the civil rights song “Ain’t Gonna Let Nobody Turn Me Around”.
Dael Orlandersmith’s Until the Flood, is an unsettling vision of Ferguson, derived from interviews with the people who live there. A black woman recalls a time when the town had “sundown laws” that were reinforced by signs that read “don’t let the sun go down on you in this town nigger”. A white male imagines lining “all of them up right on West Florissant Avenue and gunning them down.”
And yet, at the time of Michael Brown’s killings, things were expected to improve. The election of Obama in 2009 offered hope that the US was going to treat black people better. That’s certainly the belief of the American university history teacher Janine in Eleanor Burgess’s play The Niceties set in 2016.
On her wall are posters of Nelson Mandela and she is clearly liberal. But while teaching the American War of Independence, she increasingly clashes with a black student, Zoe, who claims “a successful American Revolution was only possible because of the existence of slavery”.
Trying to persuade Zoe that the country is making great strides forward, Janine points to the election of Obama as evidence of this. Zoe replies in exasperation, “yeah, we have our first black president. And we’re still getting lynched.”
In response to a spate of killings by police in 2014, Obama did set up a task force on 21st century policing. It made 156 recommendations in 2015 that we are still waiting to be implemented.
The deep historical roots of individual and institutional racism is a theme in numerous plays. There is a haunting, dreamlike quality to Dionna Michelle Daniel’s Gunshot Medley, in which a young black woman walks long circles on a dirt-covered floor as shots ring out. She is visited by the dead victims of racial violence, until we hear the sound of marching black militants and the floor is swept to reveal a huge, bloodstained Confederate flag.
Dominque Morisseau’s Blood at the Root gives us a fictional version of what took place in 2006 at a Louisiana school, when the day after black students had sat under a tree where white students usually sat, nooses were found hanging from the tree.
The horrific injustice of slavery can intrude uncomfortably into even the most personal part of our lives, as the character Layla, the light-skinned black person, discovers in Phoebe McIntosh’s play Dominoes set in the UK. A bit of family history reveals that the ancestors of the man she plans to marry were among the slave owners paid compensation in the 1830s for the loss of their human “property” as a result of the abolition of slavery. “Dump him” advises a friend while they watch a TV news report of a BLM protest in Texas and she hears that the UK treasury only finally paid off the debt such payments caused in 2015.
Given theatre can often look like the work of a long line of men, it is quite striking that my list of plays performed in the UK in recent years about racial justice seem mainly to have been authored by women. Perhaps that reflects the fact that justice campaigns about deaths in custody are often headed by women, the three founders of Black Lives Matter are women and the majority of those at most of the recent central London BLM demonstrations are women.
However, it is no surprise that the two historical figures that figure prominently in a number of plays are Martin Luther King and Malcolm X. In Katori Hall's The Mountaintop, Martin receives a visit from an unusual woman the night before he is assassinated and in Jeff Stetson’s The Meeting, he meets Malcolm in Harlem 1965. But it is Kemp Powers's One Night in Miami, which is soon to appear as a film, that for me imaginatively conjures up the turbulent 1960s decade of civil rights struggle in just one evening of conversation between four men, all of whom are at turning points in their lives. Cassius Clay having just won the world heavyweight championship is intending to publicly announce his membership of the Nation of Islam and his name change to Mohammad Ali. He is accompanied in that evening's preparations by his mentor, Malcolm X, who at the time was finding himself increasingly at odds with the organisation. With them are Sam Cooke the singer and Jim Brown the NFL football player, who are also making major decisions about their future.
Chickenshed’s Blowin’ in the Wind opens with the black woman Rosa Parks in 1955 refusing to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus to a white man. That small act inspired a new phase in the Civil Rights Movement. In an imaginative performance of music, dance and short scenes with a cast of 200, the event and Rosa Parks become a thread in a history of social protests that include the Native American struggle against an oil pipeline in Standing Rock. The show concludes with Black Lives Matter and a young woman stepping forward to tell us that in 2014, the US police shot dead 258 black males.
So it goes. Year after year. Black bodies pile up as reasons are found to excuse police responsibility. You can be killed by police suddenly for walking home carrying iced tea while black like Elijah McClain, or for sleeping in your car while black like Willie McCoy, or for sleeping at home in your bed while black like the nurse Breonna Taylor. And if the police don’t get you, then there are always the white vigilantes who will kill you even if you are simply out jogging, obviously unarmed, but black like Ahmaud Arbery.
Until black lives matter as much as other lives, we will continue to demand change and you can be sure there will be many more plays about the struggle against racial injustice.