Conceived by Mojisola Adebayo, Roy Williams and Matthew Xia. Written by Mojisola Adebayo, Vanessa Macaulay, Bola Agbaje, Dexter Flanders and Roy Williams
Actors Touring Company and GDIF, in association with the Stephen Lawrence Day Foundation.
Secret South East London Location
Thirty years ago, a young man with aspirations to being an architect was on a street in Eltham, southeast London, waiting for a bus to take him and his friend Duwayne home when he was attacked and killed.
This isn’t a play about the murder of Stephen Lawrence in 1993 but a positive response to that event created by a group of black writers and artists that celebrates black lives and hopes for the world of which Stephen could have been part.
It takes place on a red double-decker bus that partly travels the route of the 122 for which Stephen was waiting in Well Hall Road, passing that bus stop and the pavement where there is a memorial plaque.
This production commemorates Stephen but, like the Stephen Lawrence Day Foundation which it supports, it is about “standing up against racism and creating a fairer society in which all young people, regardless of their background, have the opportunity to flourish."
While the audience waits to board the bus, a couple of young guys (Dalumuzi Moyo and Omar Austin) begin a lively conversation about a possible party interspersed with some nifty competitive moves as they show off their steps. It is largely inconsequential, but it sets up the pattern for the play, which is a succession of vignettes, both solos and duologues. They stand independent of each other, but together build into a picture of lifetime hopes and aspirations and a dream of a much better future that also encompass a life from birth to maturity.
Llewella Gideon builds an immediate rapport with the audience as the Bus Conductress, welcoming them aboard with a paean to the red bus that South London for so long has depended on. Here on the 122 with you, your driver and your conductor, it is a combination of past and future. She looks back to boarded-up places and rain-soaked mattresses out on the pavement, but reminds us that Stephen thought of a better future. She speaks as one of those voices who seldom get heard until amplified by loss, but offers her bus as a safe place. It is a vivid performance that sets the whole show alight.
Next comes a dialogue between a couple of lovers (Danielle Kassaraté and Daniel Ward), but how compatible are they? He looks forward to a quiet life; she may not be satisfied with something so simple? Doreene Blackstock as pregnant Pamela, helped along by her niece Nadia (Shayde Sinclair), is next on board, She is expecting a baby boy in about a week. She wonders what to call him, a name he’ll be happy with as he grows up, speaks of the role parents play in devising their child’s future, while Nadia reassures her. “whatever the size of the crown that you put on his head, he’ll wear it well.”
The boys are back, or maybe they are different: “Who is going to be at this party? Architects! What about girls?” And a mother (she too could be different) tells of her concerns about her son’s girlfriend. We have to look after each other—this is a part of London that puts pressure on our black boys. But now the boys are discussing what they want from life. One just wants his mum: “I’ve a mum who loves me. I’ve won already!”
The Conductress, who provides punctuation right through the evening, now reminds us that this is the People’s Bus, “no boat, no plane to Rwanda.” She gets us to join in a sing-along, then there’s a male voice on about how we need change and the Architect (Karl Collins) comes aboard. He’s on his phone, he’s got a contract— to build beautiful homes, social housing. This is Stephen’s dream. But first we must imagine it and then we must plan it, design it, at last build it.
Cleverly contrived to take on passengers and to allow each scene to be played out on both decks, this is a carefully calibrated performance, complete with those stops “to regulate service”. Its sequence of scenes flows beautifully, and they are played with a conviction that makes them work really close up.
At the end of the journey, we descend from the bus to find a steel band in General Gordon Square and join them for a coda, which is a free public performance in which the architect expands on his dream: a dream of affordable social housing along the Thames, low-rise and partly constructed of ecologically ideal mud brick, and as he talks, we see the map behind him being focussed more closely and the face of Stephen Lawrence getting larger.
The Architect doesn’t set out to be highly dramatic, but its intimate, personal episodes add up to a statement about people wanting a happy life, supporting each other and, though the script fails to make it clear, that is underlined by the way in which as the bus travels along Well Hall Road: it is accompanied by runners. These are members of local athletic clubs, including the one to which Stephen belonged, who regularly remember him in this way. That moves me more than any histrionics could.
As the bus passes along its route, there is plenty of evidence of high-rise new build. Some is even council housing, but it amply demonstrates the change that is happening. It isn’t the egalitarian, ecologically supportive ideal that the Architect envisages. This play’s message is clearly that we need a better blueprint for our homeland for our community.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton