Black people in this country are nine times more likely to be stopped and searched and that is what happens to Reece in Nana-Kofi Kurfour’s debut play.
In My Voice Was Heard But It Was Ignored the teenager appeals to his black teacher Gillian for help but she refuses leading to a tense standoff in their classroom the next day. No one can accuse this new writer of picking an easy topic for this tense two hander, but it’s a subject that impacts on all of us in modern Britain one way or another.
It’s no surprise it’s being produced by Leeds based radical theatre company Red Ladder, who have a long history of taking on subjects no-one else wants to touch.
As My Voice Was Heard But It Was Ignored gets its World Premiere at Leeds Playhouse our Yorkshire editor Paul Clarke caught up Nana-Kofi to find out what he hopes people will take away from a play loosely based on a real life event.
Your debut play has an unusual premise?
The opening is a student and his teacher, and they don’t see each other. The student gets stopped and searched and he’s convincing the police officer he’s a good kid. He says I can see my teacher in the distance, let me just call her over and she can explain to you I’m a good kid so you won’t have to search me. He sprints to his teacher, but as he does so the officer grabs him, and he gets accosted.
So, he feels let down by this authority figure he trusts and what happens next?
He is letting this rage build up all might in his head and the next day he thinks I’m going to confront my teacher and tell her she’s wrong. He goes to confront her, and he sees her veil of power slip down, so actually feels quite bad for her. She says something that triggers him and he’s okay then, I’ll show you power. He locks the door, and they dissect the whole situation going through other’s lives as they do it.
As I understand this play is based on an incident that you were involved with when you worked as a teacher in a pupil referral unit where children excluded from mainstream schools are taught.
Very loosely based. I was involved with a situation where I had to restrain a student for ages, and he got a knife. He’s like ‘I’m gonna go do this to another kid’ and the police were right outside waiting to come in. I remember him telling me explicitly I’m not going to quietly, so when they come in you can do this. I said you do understand I’m not going to do anything, I’m not going to go fight the police. He just did not understand, and years later we talked and sorted everything out. Hopefully he’ll come to the play.
Why do you think he takes such extreme measures to make his point?
His argument is they made a mistake stopping me, so you need to tell them this was a mistake, because I’m a good kid. He’s thinking she can stop all this happening before it becomes something. She doesn’t and for him he just can’t wrap his head around it, whereas I know lots of adults who would watch this and go she’s 100% correct, you walk away situations like that, they are nothing to do with you. You don’t know that person, you don’t owe them anything.
This is a piece that forces us to think about whether we would intervene in that sort of situation but looking at it through the prism of race.
100%. Part of what he feels is that intrinsically she should do something regardless of being a teacher because she’s a black woman, and he’s a black man, who are supposed to protect each other. She has a different viewpoint, and he has a different viewpoint, so as you get through it they both have this idea of what being black is, but fundamentally different ideas. It’s like two opposite sides of a circle coming to the same conclusions within reason about that intrinsic sense of blackness but having it in different ways.
This might be a really difficult subject to talk about, but it is a timely one.
I always try to broach awkward conversations or ones that people don’t want to have, I use this medium of a young black student and a young black teacher, the intersections between their lives, the problems, issues and how they view each other. How the outside society views them and how they think that they should be viewed. For me this is a bit of a think piece and I want it to provide arguments and debate in the bar afterwards.
My Voice Was Heard But It Was Ignored is at Leeds Playhouse and on tour until 30th November. To book go to www.redladder.co.uk