The Protest at Bush Theatre online
The killing of George Floyd sparked a wave of reactions that, when considered collectively, look like a prelude to a worldwide revolution. Too many times in history there have been similar incidents, and they have always caused shock and outrage, but never was the response so loud and clear. Never was the ensuing conversation so far-reaching. This powerful wave was triggered by a combination of factors. Firstly, the sum of all previous tragedies formed an avalanche that was bound to come rolling down at full speed eventually, shaking everything that stood in its way. The effect of the lockdown may have played a part, too, in sharpening people’s social awareness and awakening a sense of unity. Then there is the power of social networks, which helped build up momentum on a global scale.
West London’s Bush Theatre, renowned for championing new voices and celebrating the diversity of British culture, has commissioned six artists to create short dramatised pieces expressing their reaction to the killing of Floyd and its aftermath. The result is a series of videos entitled The Protest. Curated by Daniel Bailey, the pieces are powerful due to their content, but also because they come from a place of urgency. They were created ad hoc as history is being made, and this gives them added value. Ranging from one minute to nine minutes long, the videos are available to view on Bush Theatre’s social media outlets.
Each artist chose a different approach to voice their message and each one explores the theme from a different angle. In Hey Kid, Matilda Ibini addresses her younger self, while pictures of her childhood appear on the screen. Her speech serves as a warning of the challenges to come, but also as an incitement to always speak up and never be afraid to take up space. Fehinti Balogun uses a WhatsApp conversation between two friends, which unfolds onscreen, that sees the black protagonist try to have a conversation about racism with a white friend who only engages in it superficially and seems to dismiss the complexity and breadth of the issue. His feelings are summarised in the title: You Just Don’t Get It and It Hurts.
Anoushka Lucas begins her piece, Your Work, with a beautifully performed song that speaks of the weariness of having to go through the same cycle without ever reaching a satisfactory point. She then expresses her anger at how often racist and offensive remarks are spoken nonchalantly and go unchallenged. Kalungi Ssebandeke also voices his views through song, with Lucas herself collaborating on the piece, in a rap entitled The Fire This Time, while images of street protests and arrests accompany his words of remonstrance.
Roy Williams’ Black, performed by Aaron Pierre, packs many emotions, going from fear to fragility in just over one minute. The perfect conclusion to the series is Benedict Lombe‘s speech Do You Hear Us Now, which powerfully and succinctly looks at where the debate stands, how long it’s been going on for, and questions whether those who have shown solidarity now will commit to taking the next step, and all the necessary steps after that, until real changes are made. Lombe even considers how the very act of dramatising her response can be problematic, as it means turning the pain and anger into something else and toning it down somehow. Thus she keeps it open, honest and direct.
The Protest is a wonderful example of what theatre should and can be. Too often productions are put on stage, sometimes using substantial budgets, mainly with the aim of filling up seats. Now there are no seats to fill, but there are performers with a burning urge to communicate thoughts and feelings that can potentially shake up the status quo and help pave the way towards a fairer society. The theatre stage, whether physical or digital, must prioritise the voices that have something consequential to express.