Am I, a white man, the right person to be reviewing this? I asked myself continually throughout this locked room drama from Red Ladder Theatre in which a black male school student, Reece (Jelani D’Aguilar) confronts his black female teacher, Gillian (Misha Duncan-Barry) after she refuses to get involved when he is assaulted by the police. It will always be a tough question for those of us with the privilege to go through life without facing racism or misogyny. But what Nana-Kufi Kufuor’s intellectually stimulating script does so well is explore the ways that the many facets of bigotry and discrimination around race, gender, age and class intersect and are propagated in one way or another by many people in society, including these two characters — and this includes the ways racist notions that originate in the UK’s white majority can sometimes be reproduced between black people with different life experiences. So yes, my own experience puts limitations on what I can take from this — but to a greater or lesser extent it would be the same for anyone else. A key message of this play is that no one has the full spectrum of human experience under their belt.
The play is in two sections; in a short opening, Reece and Gillian walk onto the stage, alternately sharing their inner thoughts on the judgements they each face on a daily basis. For Reece, it’s the prejudice experienced by most young black men in British society; for Gillian, the anxiety that comes from not being perceived like any other (white) middle class, professional woman who is at home shopping in M&S. The story begins as Reece is approached by invisible police officers. Resisting their aggression, he is pinned to the ground and one of them kneels on his neck, in a plot point that is a horrifying pre-echo of the murder of George Floyd: the play was written in 2019, before Floyd’s brutal killing by Minneapolis police reignited the Black Lives Matter movement. As the situation escalates, Reece calls out to Gillian, standing nearby, to intervene – but she declines.
The rest of the 80 minute running time is a single scene in which Reece enters Gillian’s classroom, steals the key, locks the door and refuses to let her leave until the two have hashed out the reasons she refused to help him. To her, he’s a naive and impudent teen whose attitude reinforces the stereotypes young black men are beset by. To him, she’s in denial of her black identity, refusing to show solidarity on racial lines and deluded that she’d ever be accepted as an equal by her white colleagues. As the conversation develops and the pair take part in a series of role plays, the complexity of their identities and challenges is fleshed out in rich detail, and they find both new common ground and divisions.
For all the intelligence of the script – which is packed with ideas – and the passion and energy of the two actors, though, My Voice Was Heard… doesn’t entirely work as a drama. The intensity of the main scene rarely drops and the characters’ continual attacks on each other become somewhat exhausting. But it’s the structure that keeps this from being a truly great play – cutting the opening section and instead letting the details of Reece’s traumatic experience emerge during his conversation with Gillian would have added some tension and an opportunity to vary the pace a little. That’s not to write it off though – this is an important work that should be heard and not ignored.
My Voice Was Heard But It Was Ignored ran at Sheffield Theatres from 29-30 November. More info here.