Leeds Playhouse have excelled themselves since lockdown with the productions they have staged. OK, so there was one clunker and another I thought was a bit too clever for its own good, but this is a real gem. Even Red Ladder have exceeded their usual high standards here, perhaps a longer ladder is now needed.
This play by Nana-Kofi Kufuor was ostensibly about racism but not in the way you might think. When it opens we witness a brutal attack by the police on a young black boy who is giving them a bit of lip but not much more than that. His teacher, a black woman, witnesses the act but doesn’t intervene, choosing instead to walk away. After school the following day, the boy, Reece, goes to see the teacher, Gillian, who is alone in her classroom, snatches her keys from the desk and locks them both in. The remainder of the hour and a half’s duration of the work is an examination of how each one views the other.
The attack occurred outside Marks and Spencer where Gillian had just been doing some clothes shopping. Reece was with some mates who were creating a bit of a nuisance, as adolescent schoolboys are prone to do. I must admit that I was no angel at his age. This throws the dynamic of authority into sharp relief. Gillian sees Reece as a trouble maker whereas he sees her as selling out, referring to her as being ‘white’. Thus, the discrimination is between two people of colour rather than the normal black v white.
The brilliant irony of two black people confronting their stereotypical views of each other highlights the similarities between black and white people rather than their differences. How many white people do other whites discriminate against without even knowing them because of their perceived grouping. In my working life I have walked into several pubs or other businesses wearing a suit, tie and polished shoes when the atmosphere of distrust and threat was palpable. Fortunately, if I wasn’t able to break through this barrier, the abuse I got was usually just verbal; only twice was it physical and just once requiring a visit to A&E. I will wager that they had me down as middle-class rather than being raised in a post-war slum in East Leeds with no bathroom or hot water (but plenty of cockroaches), and a shared toilet at the end of the street, and how many First World city kids contract dysentery?
Anyway, this is not a political article, but a review of a very powerful and thought provoking piece of art. The set, designed by Caitlin Mawhinney, was a square box with a notice board on the back wall, graffiti on the others, a small table and chair and another larger one which was Gillian’s. This added to the claustrophobia caused by the enforced confinement of the two characters.
Dermot Daly’s direction was superb. At the beginning I didn’t think that this was going to be the case as the two characters stood either side of the stage speaking simultaneously so that I could not make out what either was saying. Every so often they would say a line in synchronisation which was a sign that although they were obviously seeing the initial assault through different eyes, their thoughts met on certain aspects of it. Once in the classroom they assumed the normal conversational style and so my fears were allayed. There was a clever use of role-play in which the two characters swapped places with each other or assumed an outsider’s persona to make a point. Brilliant!
The drama of the assault and the more dramatic incidents within the classroom were emphasised by the combination of Rod Dixon, the Movement Director, Adam Foley, Lighting and Projection Designer and Tayo Akinbode, Sound Designer.
Finally I get to the two actors in the piece; Misha Duncan-Barry who played Gillian and Jelani D’Aguilar as Reece. Both were beyond superb. I was fortunate enough to see them in the bar after the play, I didn’t intrude as they were deservedly having a post-show loosener, but it struck me how much they had transformed their appearance for the parts. Ms Duncan-Barry was stunning, looking as though she had just stepped out of Harvey Nichols, rather than M&S whereas on stage her frumpy outfit added several years to her look. In contrast, Mr D’Aguilar, although equally stylishly turned out, had transformed from adolescent hoodie to mature young man. I realise that they are actors and that is what they do, but these were far more convincing than most.
Aside from the costumes and make-up the range of emotions displayed by the pair was enormous. In Reece’s case it was the pain and fear of having his head scraped along the pavement by the police, through swagger in the classroom when he locked them both in, to the gradual realisation of his own motivation which led to the final crescendo of a scene which left the audience in silence for quite some time before bursting into tumultuous applause. Gillian morphed from the school ma’am who imposed her authority because she had to, to a woman who found her inner strength and, as a result, began to blossom. All the way through she stayed true to her principles, as illustrated by her refusal to say n****r constantly referring to it as ‘The N Word’, no matter how much Reece tried to goad her into using it.
Don’t be put off by the description, this is not a preachy play by any means and it has far more than its fair share of humour, delivered with perfect timing by both actors.
Sadly, My Voice Was Heard But It Was Ignored only runs at Leeds Playhouse until 13th November, but it then goes on tour. If you are free tonight then please follow this link and get a ticket https://leedsplayhouse.org.uk/events/my-voice-was-heard-but-it-was-ignored-2/
Should you wish to find out more about the cast and creatives go to https://522084-1661659-raikfcquaxqncofqfm.stackpathdns.com/wp-content/uploads/2021/11/MVYH-Free-Sheet-FINAL-Nov-21-2.pdf
Finally, to find out when the play will be coming to a venue near you, Yorkshire dates are at Doncaster, Pocklington, Barnsley and Sheffield, with another close one in Oldham, the link is http://www.redladder.co.uk/whatson/my-voice-was-heard-but-it-was-ignored/
All images provided by Leeds Playhouse
This is a Red Ladder production with support from Leeds Playhouse and Oldham Coliseum Theatre