On the 12th of September, I went to a dress rehearsal of 846 Live, a co-production between Theatre Royal Stratford East and the Royal Docks team. The play, like the Black Lives Matter Movement (BLM) here, used the murder of George Floyd as a conduit to localise systemic anti-Blackness and police brutality: an issue spoken about in the UK in too abstract terms. Performed outside with loud booming speakers, its core message – refusing to be silenced, was inescapable. After watching the show and the important role the DJ and the audio element played, it made me think about my own voice, and my own silence.
Walking back from the performance, my ears were still ringing with the litany of names. Sean Rigg. Olaseni Lewis. Mark Duggan. The long list of familiar names reminds me that Black lives, voices and outrage are continually marginalised and our trauma has a sell-by date. The ways in which minorities express outrage and grief at injustice is constantly policed, and there is a pressure to keep allies engaged (/entertained). When fulfilling my (unpaid, fulltime) role as The Black Correspondent and asked about BLM by non-Black friends over drinks, my thoughts on anti-Black racism, the prison industrial complex and its relation to whiteness have to be delivered in bite-sized “RaCisM iS BAd” chunks. This makes it clear that my pain is for consumption.
The explicit, unflinching message of 846 Live led me to reflect on my own platform. The use of looping by the DJ was unsettling. There were sounds of wailing and mourning, singing and silence. Hearing the names of those murdered by the state ring loudly in the air made me realise the importance in being conscientious versus merely conscious of your audience. Do I make the most of my voice? Am I being limited by fear of making others uncomfortable? If I am anti-racist and I am actively trying to push others, discomfort should be an intention. When discussions around George Floyd, BLM and anti-Black racism happen, if I feel safe I have a responsibility to speak up, and speak truthfully. I do not have any responsibility toward white sensibilities: the moments of uncomfortable silence after calling out friends for their remarks about ‘roadmen’ or for misogynoir toward Megan thee Stallion could never equal 8:46.
The show, with its multigenerational focus, pushed me to think about how there are those whose struggle isn’t expressed (or received) neatly as ‘art’ or ‘politics’. As a university-educated writer, my condemnation of white supremacy is exercised in ways that will never be denounced by Theresa May as “thuggery” or “sheer violence”, but is received by some as revolutionary, or in some circles, ‘niche’. We have the privilege to perform activism. But, the language that I use and the ideas that I am inspired by is all because of those who have fought here before us: Notting Hill, Brixton, Croydon – building blocks in the archive of Black British liberation, all disregarded as ‘riots’.
By Leah, Stratford East Youth Theatre member
Photo credit: GDIF/Stephen Wright