Whilst watching Lament for Sheku Bayoh, I couldn’t stop thinking about the Electric Slide, the dance that serves as a kind of entry test for blackness. Even in a year when there has been a paucity of dancing due to a worldwide virus, the electric slide has remained prominent, transformed from a movement of joy to one of protest. Why did this dance keep invading my thoughts as I watched Hannah Lavery’s play? I think it’s because the Electric Slide is a perfect example of art as protest, difficult to define, subversive and, crucially, stained with a joy that is key to overcoming oppression.
Lament for Sheku Bayoh seeks to tell the story of the death of the man that lends his name to the piece. Lavery seems to want to redress the narrative that sprung up after he died at the hands of the police, who portrayed him as a superhuman beast (he was, as is repeated throughout the piece, 5’10 and 12 stone 8 – smaller than a number of the officers that apprehended him). Its cast, Saskia Ashdown, Patricia Panther and Courtney Stoddart, and musician Beldina Odenyo, are arresting, taking on a number of different roles and performing as if they are brimming with a plaintive desire to impress upon the audience the urgency of the problems being spoken of. The story fits well with one of the themes of 2020, the nascent realisation – among people not from ethnic minorities at least – that police brutality and systemic injustice is not just an issue localised to America, and that the UK and Scotland in particular has its own recent troubling history in these areas.
It is an earnest and important but flawed piece of theatre. Important because it highlights how easy it is to make monsters out of men, and shows the almost impossible path to justice faced by the families of people that die in police custody. However, in focusing on the events of Bayoh’s death, it seeks to unpick the official narrative rather than create its own. This is important. By using the official narrative as the start point, I feel like I’m watching a dance that has been known to me for decades, the dance of trying to get the people of this experiment called the UK to recognise that its systems are oppressive to minorities. Sheku Bayoh’s life mattered. The official narrative surrounding his death leans into racist stereotypes as a way to justify the actions of the officers that were involved with his killing. The true facts of the case are known to anyone that wishes to look into it.
I’ve reviewed a lot of theatre that casts a critical eye at race in the UK, and I am used to the kind of reviews that come out after these plays are produced, with terms like “powerful”, “needed” and “eye-opening” used. With respect, whose eyes are being opened? My worry is that Lament for Sheku Bayoh will be critically acclaimed and then forgotten. It is not enough to say that Bayoh’s life mattered. I assumed that going in, although I will say that I am glad that in the all too brief moments when the play focuses on his life, it highlights how normal he was, a father and trainee engineer. It’s the normality of his life that best emphasises the tragedy of his death. It is also not enough for theatres to only commission pieces that look at black tragedy. This is a dance that has gone on for too long.
Lament for Sheku Bayoh was livestreamed on 20th and 21st November 2020. More info here.