The CCTV footage of the death of Christopher Alder is on YouTube. The police station is an alien fuzzy green. The police officers move jerkily, their faces blurred. Three of them drag in a Black man in handcuffs and leave him lying curled on the floor. The sergeant behind the desk asks why the man has been arrested. The officers explain that he’s been taken in for behaving aggressively as they attempted to remove him from the Hull Royal Infirmary.
As they talk, you can hear in the background the bubbling desperate sound of someone breathing through blood. One of the officers says, ‘This is just a show, this is just an acting thing now.’
Typical is a spoken word monologue, written by Ryan Calais Cameron and performed by Richard Blackwood, based on the last day of Alder’s life. Blackwood’s nameless character shares Alder’s background, and the narrative of the play maps onto real-world events. But in this semi-fictionalised, staged version of the night (‘a show … an acting thing’), the man in Typical can reveal emotional preoccupations and sweet-natured idiosyncrasies. He has a personality that’s missing from the bare facts of the witness statements and trial transcript relating to Alder’s death.
He’s an ex-paratrooper, now a little lost and lonely, trying to adapt to civilian life and the nine-to-five. He’s not as young as he once was and he’s not taking great care of himself. The play starts as his alarm goes off in the late afternoon. But he’s upbeat, excited about having a night on the town later, excited about having his two boys for the weekend.
Blackwood’s character is intensely likeable, chatting to the audience while he gets ready. He plays the room, brooking no arguments over the correct pronunciation of plantain (with an upward inflection), doing a little boogie to Chaka Demus. He’s British Nigerian by descent, but wryly admits that he sometimes talks like a ‘Jafaican.’ He’s funny and self-aware. Repeatedly, he describes himself as ‘typical’: a ‘typical’ Black British man.
The word ‘typical’ runs through Ryan Calais Cameron’s play like through a stick of rock, shifting meaning with context. With a resigned shrug or a self-deprecating eyeroll, delivered to the mostly Black audience on the night I saw the show, it’s a bond-building word, a shared in-joke. But it carries an edge of frustration. It’s ‘typical’, for example, that the bouncer lets the white punters into the club ahead of him, waiting in the queue. (Typical follows Ryan Calais Cameron and Nouveau Riche’s previous play Queens of Sheba in examining race relations in Britain through the prism of a night out.)
In the club, he feels conspicuous, ‘a cocoa pop in a bowl of milk.’ Generally, Blackwood creates other characters in the story using great physical comedy – but now, drinking and dancing alone in a hostile environment, the man’s solo vulnerability becomes clear. When three racist clubbers jump him, their fistfight is a man beating himself up for being something he’s not. There’s no possibility of outside rescue, no way of breaking the tangled knot of the conflict.
Over the course of the play, the actions described as ‘typical’ bleed into dangerous stereotyping. His behaviour in the hospital is read by police officers and medical staff as ‘typical of people on amphetamines’ (which he wasn’t): he’s found to be deliberately uncooperative, despite the fact that he was scared and confused. Stereotypes of Black masculinity contribute to his treatment as a criminal rather than a victim.
Lighting designer Sorcha Stott-Strzala effectively uses onstage disco lighting throughout, calling to the main character’s love of chart hits, the songs running through his head. In the the hospital and the police station, though, the rainbow strobing suddenly turns bright, stark, Institutional White.
Typical’s set is simple: three black blocks and a white sheet backdrop. Zahra Mansouri carries this simplicity into the character’s costuming – Blackwood wears a white shirt, black suit, no tie. So Calais Cameron’s rhythmic, churning language builds much of the world of the play. The central character is a man who ‘has a lot of words,’ although somehow, he says, ‘they’ve got a way with me,’ rather than the other way around. But he’s certainly a talker, a joker, a man with an innate belief in the usefulness and strength of language. ‘Nothing haunts us like the things we don’t say,’ he swears.
After twelve minutes on the CCTV footage, one of the officers finally points out, ‘he’s not making those noises anymore lads.’
At the end of Typical, the YouTube video is projected onto the backdrop. The policemen on the grainy film hear only what they expected to hear from the moment they arrived at the Hull Royal Infirmary: a noisy, grunting aggressor faking his own pain. The articulate poetry of the man in the play has disappeared even before Alder stops breathing.
BAME people in the UK are more than twice as likely to die in police custody in instances where the use of force or restraint is a contributing factor. Typical is a hard-hitting reminder of the times institutional racism manifests as brute, fatal violence.
Typical is on at Soho Theatre till 28th September. More info here.