'I once had a student bring in a knife': New play at Leeds Playhouse explores growing up in modern Britain
A theatre company whose history is rooted in an era of riots, demonstrations and revolt is bringing a new performance to Leeds as part of its drive for social change.
Red Ladder, which started in London in 1968 but is now based at the Yorkshire Dance Centre in Leeds, will stage "My Voice Was Heard But It Was Ignored" for three nights at The Playhouse next month.
It explores race and identity and was inspired by the personal experience of Nana-Kofi Kufuor, who is making his stage writing debut, and will be asking the audience, ‘if you see something you do not agree with, do you intervene’?
He grew up in Stockport with Ghanian parents and has worked in education with young people from a range of backgrounds and had penned the play prior to the murder of George Floyd, but its production was postponed due to the pandemic.
He said: "The crux of this play is how two people react to the same situation. They go on a journey, a journey a lot of people of colour go on, a realisation that where you are now isn’t necessarily where you come from.
“When working at a Pupil Referral Unit, I once had a student take a knife to stab another student. Once I’d calmed him down, we sat in the canteen, and he explained to me he wasn’t going to go quietly. The police were outside, and they took him. I saw him a few weeks later, and he asked why I didn’t help him? That rush of guilt changed to anger and quickly to sympathy as he saw me as his protector. But I knew I couldn’t do anything.”
"My Voice Was Heard But It Was Ignored" opens with 15-year-old Reece (Jelani D’Aguilar) being roughly accosted by police. His young, black teacher Gillian (Misha Duncan-Barry) witnesses it all but doesn’t question or intervene as the disturbing scene plays out. The consequences of her lack of action erupt the following day when Gillian finds herself locked in a classroom with Reece.
Leeds-based director Dermot Daly say the theme of the play is huge but it is as much about the meaning and creation of identity and neither character is who they want to be but both appear trapped and robbed of agency.
Rod Dixon, Artistic Director of Red Ladder, said: "We take our work to the audiences whether it is a small WMC, a rugby club or sports and social club or a big place like the Royal Court at Liverpool and we have had shows at the City Varieties, Carriage-works and The Playhouse. The point is we try and tell stories or the voices that don't get heard - the ordinary people.
"This latest piece is by a young black writer, writing about the experiences of that in Britain. It was picked up a year before the Black Lives Matter protests but is about systematic racism and what it is to be black and British in 2021 and 2022.
"We seek work that resonates with contemporary Britain, people who would perhaps not feel confident going to a theatre and don't think the stories on stage are their stories. What we are trying to do is make them feel comfortable and it is admirable of The Playhouse to agree to stage this because they are seeking out stories that speak to the people of Leeds."
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