On May 25, 2020, George Floyd, a 46-year old Black American man was killed by a white police officer in Minnesota. The officer knelt on Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, restricting his airway until he stopped breathing and died.
The killing was recorded on a mobile phone by a 17-year-old girl named Darnella Frazier and would go on to ignite a global awakening about police brutality against Black people. In the following days and weeks, Black Lives Matter protests filled the streets in at least 60 countries on six of seven continents – including here in the UK.
846 is the response of 14 Black British and Asian British writers – including Selina Thompson, Eddie Botsio, Carol Russell and Roy Williams (interview, p29)– to Floyd’s murder. The three themed episodes Growing Up in Racist Britain, Police Brutality and The Effects of Racism on Mental Health – weave together to create a deafening picture of the reality of being Black in 21st-century Britain. It feels pertinent that the police brutality episode is at least twice as long as the others.
Many of the pieces are not just stories, but memories: a Black boy is banned from playing on the Atari at his white friend’s house; a Jamaican grandmother remembers rioting against police brutality in Brixton almost 40 years ago; a young woman recounts the time she witnessed a murder; a South Asian man talks about the time when he was called nigger, paki, wop and kike.
It’s a sturdy challenge to the ignorant assertions that these protests have no place on British streets. To those who claim this is an American problem, writer Carol Russell talks of Cherry Groce a mother of six, who was shot in her own bed by the Metropolitan Police three and a half decades before the same fate would meet 26-year-old Breonna Taylor on the other side of the Atlantic.
And there’s more: Sumerah Srivastav’s piece Say Their Names is a list of some of the Black and Asian people who have died in suspicious circumstances, following contact with the police. There are 36 names in total and the final one – David Oluwale – is significant. His is the only case in which the officers in question were imprisoned. That was in 1969.
There is an unease when considering this kind of work within the general landscape of theatre arts. The vocabulary of mainstream criticism lacks the range for that discussion, rendering constructive progressive dialogue for this kind of work very difficult.
Star ratings are useful for judging entertainment or production or commercial value. But none of those things matter here because the production is scant and it is not intended to make money. This piece of art is not for your entertainment.
Our British streets are absolutely the right place for Black Lives Matter protests, and if you listen to 846 you’ll learn a little of why. The UK is not innocent.
Rating: The star rating system is an ineffective framework in which to consider this audio play. This piece is intentionally unrated.