Dismissed at Soho Theatre
The Upsetters is an anti-racist theatre company founded with a specific goal in mind: to bring on the stage plays written, directed and performed by artists of colour, whose works challenge systematic and systemic oppression – knife violence, for instance, and the classism and racism deeply embedded in the UK’s education system.
Daniel Rusteau’s powerful debut, directed by Nikhil Vyas, takes place entirely at school: one of the lowest-ranked secondary schools in London. Ashley (Georgia-Mae Myers) is a young sociology teacher who has worked there for almost two years, and has already suffered much loss and defeat, but also joy – joy and hope in seeing one of her Black GCSE pupils, Tyler, finally opening up to her, and talking about wanting to become an architect. Until the day Tyler brings a knife to school, and his teacher is forced to report him, not knowing what the drastic consequences will be.
Ashley believes that the school symbolises more to her students than the four neutral-coloured walls between which they go to learn. School should be a nurturing haven, where they can discover and explore their true passions, whilst being sheltered from all the insidious violence snaking its way from the streets to the front gate, trying to get in. But, sometimes, violence does get in. Interestingly, the knife never actually makes an appearance, and neither does Tyler. The play doesn’t glamourise violence but focuses on telling a complex story from the different points of view of the adults – parents and educators – whose choices deeply impact the present and future of the young students they are supposed to protect.
Rusteau creates a deeply absorbing and compelling scenario: from start to finish, everyone is hooked, silently waiting for the next scene. Every character – the nervous teachers worried about their jobs but also trying to do the right thing, the mother (Bonnie Baddoo) who mistrusts authority – possesses a recognisable set of traits, making each one of them feel alive and real. Jonathan (Jon McGuinness), for instance, is the older teacher who provides comic relief with his witty one-liners and detached demeanour, while the battle between just and unjust unravels. But what is “just”?
Susan (Rebecca Crankshaw), the white, middle-class headteacher, has her own idea: she delivers a heartfelt speech in which she opens up about her own trauma, having seen several students being stabbed to death. She is not willing to forgive Tyler for bringing a knife to school – not if it could risk another child’s life. Ashley, on the other hand, has a different and more empathetic understanding of Tyler’s thinking and intentions; she also knows that, by expelling him, the school is sealing his fate. Both women have their reasons, informed by their experiences and past. They also have some fixed ideas about the other: Susan sees Ashley as young and naïve, while Ashley sees Susan as privileged and lacking in empathy. Despite being two well-rounded characters, however, the interactions between the women sometimes reveal the artifice and pen hiding behind them – even though the situation depicted is sadly a recurring reality.
Overall, the writing paints a multifaceted set of characters, looking at very relevant and timely issues from different angles and points of view: despite their differences, both Ashely and Susan know first-hand how deeply one simple decision can affect a child’s life. In the end, another young life is lost, another “if only”. There’s some hope, however: hope in nurture, eradicating prejudice and racism from a faulted education system.
Dismissed is at Soho Theatre from 16th May until 3rd June 2023. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.