Features Published 16 November 2020

Hannah Lavery: “If we do not revise our history, then that’s dangerous”

Poet-turned-playwright Hannah Lavery discusses racism in Scotland, her ‘wilderness years’, and her new play, Lament for Sheku Bayoh.

Fergus Morgan

Hannah Lavery. Photograph: Hazel Mirsepasi

On May 3rd, 2015, 32-year-old father Sheku Bayoh died in custody, after several police officers pinned him to the ground in the early hours of the morning. But this wasn’t Minneapolis, or Charlottesville, or even America. This was Kirkcaldy, Scotland, a medium-sized, post-industrial town of 50,000 people, lying across the Firth of Forth from Edinburgh. Not, in other words, the sort of place that many white people would immediately associate with a black man dying at the hands of the state.

For mixed-race poet-turned-playwright Hannah Lavery, though, Bayoh’s death wasn’t a surprise. Born and raised in Edinburgh, Lavery says she “turned away” from the news at first “out of self-preservation”. It wasn’t until David Greig, artistic director of Edinburgh’s Lyceum Theatre approached her to make a play about Bayoh’s death that she started to research it, and to contemplate what it revealed about contemporary Scotland.

“I was shocked, of course, because it is a very shocking thing to happen,” she says. “But was I shocked that it could happen here in Scotland? No, because I’ve experienced this country as a person of colour, and I’m absolutely aware of the racism here. There’s so much violence, not only physical violence, but casual violence in the way people of colour are treated and dismissed, and in how often their experiences and their voices are not given value.”

Lavery went to the theatre regularly when she was growing up, but despite studying for a HNC – a Scottish qualification that sits in between school and university – in acting and performance at Telford College, it wasn’t until she reached her thirties that she started performing in public as an adult. At first, it was short poems, then long poems, then even longer works that blurred the line between poem and play.

“I spent my wilderness years teaching drama in secondary school,” she says. “I was always writing, but I just didn’t know what to do with it. Then I read one of my poems at an open mic night, and it all started there. I didn’t even realise I was making theatre, at first. I was just putting poems together and creating a narrative between them.”

Lavery’s new project, Lament For Sheku Bayoh, was first staged as a work-in-progress at the 2019 Edinburgh International Festival. Later this month, it is returning as a fully-fledged production – co-produced by the Lyceum, the EIF, and the National Theatre of Scotland – on the Lyceum’s main stage, playing to an empty auditorium but streamed online to audiences at home. The show, says Lavery, is “a flowing expression of grief and mourning” over Bayoh’s death, which she hopes will provoke people to “ask questions about themselves and about others”.

“It’s very episodic, it uses verbatim language, it uses poetry,” describes Lavery. “It’s a lament. I was really struck, when I was doing my research, by the idea of keeners – women who sing and wail for the dead. So I decided to use three women to tell the story – Courtney Stoddart, Patricia Panther, and Saskia Ashdown. They morph in and out of different characters throughout the course of the play.”

The production premieres against a backdrop of ongoing anger surrounding the aftermath of Bayoh’s death, which has been further galvanised by this year’s Black Lives Matter protests. The similarities between the killing of Bayoh in Kirkcaldy and the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis have not gone unnoticed. Back in June, Bayoh’s sister Kadi Johnson said she couldn’t bear watching the video of Floyd being knelt on by police officers because it brought back memories of how her brother died.

Unlike in the case of Floyd, though, no criminal prosecutions have taken place over Bayoh’s death. Instead, a public inquiry was ordered in November last year, and in May, the scope of that inquiry was confirmed: it will examine not only the events surrounding Bayoh’s death, but whether or not his “actual or perceived race” was a factor. Five years on, and Bayoh’s family are still waiting for answers.

For Lavery, though, the truth is obvious. Scotland, she says, is a “racist society”, but the country’s particular problem is that few people are prepared to accept that fact. There is, she says, a kind of “gaslighting” that goes on, where people refuse to accept that Scotland is guilty of the same societal racism seen in America, England, and elsewhere are. And it is an issue further complicated by the question of Scottish independence – a cause Lavery is firmly in favour of.

“We have a very common problem with racism in Scotland, a problem that you see across the world,” she says. “But we also have our own particular issue of denial, of wanting to talk about ourselves in a way that we aren’t. There’s a kind of Scottish exceptionalism that sees Scotland as better than everywhere else, and the facts don’t support that.”

“I say this as someone that voted for independence in 2015, as someone that supports independence,” she continues. “One of the really exciting things about independence is the chance to have those conversations about who we are, and how we can be better, and how we can build the tolerant country we sell to ourselves. Scottish exceptionalism gets in the way of that.”

Scottish exceptionalism, the country’s inability to accept its flaws and its wilful blindness to the role it played in British colonialism are topics Lavery has tackled before, most notably in her 2019 one-woman play The Drift. In a particularly powerful passage, she discussed how it felt to learn that the slave ships that transported her paternal ancestors from West Africa to the Caribbean were likely Scottish-owned. But, says Lavery, that show and the questions it raised come from a place of love, just as Lament For Sheku Bayoh does.

“I think of The Drift as a love letter to Scotland,” she says. “I have a deep love for Scotland, and that love is always there, amid a hope for change. There’s a line in Lament For Sheku Bayoh that goes: “Can we not have this love without question?” And that feels like the key question to ask. Can we not have this love without question? Can we not just be honest about who we are?”

“If we do not revise our history, if we do not grow as a nation, then that’s dangerous,” Lavery continues. “And it’s especially dangerous for people of colour. We are in danger of denying people their own experience. We are in danger of brutalising them. We are in danger of people not being able to live their full lives. And that’s not good enough.”

Lavery has a poem that captures the tangled, conflicting feelings she has about her home country beautifully – a rich, rewarding work in which she simultaneously reveres and rages against the land she loves. It’s called ‘Scotland, You’re No Mine’ and, like much of Lavery’s work, it is written in layered, syncopated dialect that lends it both rhythm and authenticity.
“So fuck you for no seeing one of your own,” she writes. “I will, here. I will spill, here, my blood and your secrets, bleed into you, root and earth, and you, forever, pagan, will, in the spill and the seep, see all you really are. So fuck you, my sweet forgetful Caledonia. With love, fuck you.”

It’s a deeply personal poem. The Drift was a deeply personal play. And, although it focusses on a recent tragedy, Lament For Sheku Bayoh is also deeply rooted in Lavery’s personal experience as a mixed-race woman in Scotland. As she continues to explore the hinterland between poetry and play, though, Lavery is interested in branching out. In October, she was made an associate artist with the National Theatre of Scotland, and she has two more theatre works lined up for 2021, which are designed for younger audiences.

“I’m writing a play called The Unseen Child for Hopscotch Theatre, which is a play for children,” she says. “Then I’m also writing a piece for Imaginate called The Protest, which is also for young people, and which looks at routes into activism. I also hope to have a new poetry pamphlet out soon. Whatever I do, though, I’m still interested in language, and I’m still interested in work that looks at the individual’s power to change the world.”

Lament For Sheku Bayoh is streaming live from Edinburgh’s Lyceum Theatre on November 20th and 21st. More info and tickets here

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Fergus Morgan is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

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