846 Live

Nathaniel Martello-White, Nathan Powell, Sumerah Srivastav, Selina Thompson
Theatre Royal Stratford East / Greenwich and Docklands International Festival
The Royal Docks Learning & Activity Centre Basketball Court

Doreene Blackstock, Xana, Michael Elcock, Leo Wringer, Tonderai Munyevu Credit: Stephen Wright
Cherrelle Skeete Credit: Stephen Wright
Ira Mandela Siobhan, Judith Jacob, Cherrelle Skeete, Michael Elcock, Tonderai Munyevu Credit: Stephen Wright

It took eight minutes forty-nine seconds for the white police officer Derek Chauvin to kill his handcuffed prisoner George Floyd by kneeling on his neck. The expression on his face is one of casual contempt for his prisoner and a certainty that his brutality will have no repercussions.

But this time things were different. The outrage was immediate and massive with demonstrations in thousands of cities. Among those protesting were sports people and performers. The Theatre Royal Stratford East quickly produced 846, a series of short audio plays by fourteen writers that give us a glimpse of the trauma of being black in a UK still riven with racism. Four of these form 846 Live, performed in an outdoor basketball court adjacent to a seventeen-storey block of flats in the docklands.

Individual audience members were allocated a bench seat over a metre distance from other benches, with a second person allowed to share a bench if they came from the same household. The only people not wearing masks were the actors, who were always a reasonable distance from each other.

Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam” plays us to our seats and is followed by IC3 by Nathaniel Martello-White, in which the paranoid voice of an American police woman (Kirsty Bushell) is heard talking on police radio to a senior officer about her suspicions of even the most ordinary movements of a male she sees sitting on a bench, because after all, being a black male, he is suspicious.

A different kind of difficulty arises for a black male (Ira Mandela Siobhan) married into a white family in Nathan Powell’s Suck. Your. Mum. He is bothered by his father-in-law’s avoidance of speaking about the killing of George Floyd. Behind him, one of the protest placards on the wall reads “White Silence Breeds Violence”.

Something of the protest demonstrations is evoked by Sumerah Srivastav’s Say Their Names in which there is a haunting soundscape by Xana as a black male arrives to the performance space with a megaphone he uses to say the names, ages and circumstances by which black and Asian people have “died as a result of force or restraint by police.” They include Olaseni Lewis, a 23-year-old IT graduate who died saying “I can't breathe” after being restrained by 11 police officers. We are told that “the UK is not innocent.”

Selina Thompson’s My Part takes us to a political meeting of black speakers where a man claims, “it is a fallacy to pretend that white people never noticed” racism before and that we shouldn't “expend energy on that myth of innocence.” Someone insists that the whole system needs to change and others speak about the lessons of the past from both America and the UK. A woman points out that “1,740 people have died under the police watch here” with “no prosecutions”. She draws our attention to the United Family and Friends Campaign that hold their annual march to Downing Street on the 31 of October.

It’s a moving, well performed show that culminates in a chorus of voices answering the call of “Say their Names“, with the names of the black and Asian casualties of police violence.

As this performance took place, another Black Lives Matter protest gathered outside Scotland Yard demanding the resignation of the Commissioner Cressida Dick for failing “to acknowledge” racism in the Metropolitan Police.

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna