First look: Trailer and images revealed for new play Lament for Sheku Bayoh
In the rehearsal studio of the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh, four women have been reunited again by the same human tragedy that first brought them together well over a year ago.
Writer-director Hannah Lavery and the actors Saskia Ashdown, Patricia Panther, and Courtney Stoddart were last in the building together when the Edinburgh International Festival was in full swing.
It has taken more than a year since the three days of script-in-hand performances of Lavery’s powerful new play for them to get the chance to take it to the next level – and reflect on how much has changed around the work since last summer.
They were reunited to work on one of the few pieces of live theatre created in Scotland since the industry was shut down eight months ago - on a subject matter that has since sparked a worldwide movement and has triggered intense debates about the country’s past involvement in slavery and the modern-day realities for Scots who regularly encounter racism.
The National Theatre of Scotland show, Lament for Sheku Bayoh, which has been filmed at the Royal Lyceum ahead of its a two online broadcast this weekend, is a “personal response” from Lavery to the death of a 31-year-old gas engineer, originally from Sierra Leone, in police custody in a street in Kirkcaldy, Fife, where he had lived since he was 17.
The police, who had been responding to reports of a man brandishing a knive behaving erratically, used CS spray, leg restraints and handcuffs to subdue him. The father-of-two, who was restrained by nine police officers, was found to have suffered 23 separate injuries.
His family, who have claimed that institutional racism was a key factor in his death, believed that racial stereotypes were used to brief the media that the police had been confronted by a “crazed” black man with “bulging muscles” and suggestions from the Scottish Police Federation that a “petite” female officer was attacked by “a large male.”
They were left furious after it emerged that none of the officers involved would face prosecution. But their campaign led to the Scottish Government ordering a public inquiry, which will examine whether race played a part in the tragedy.
Lavery’s idea of creating a “lament” for Mr Bayoh was sparked by a realisation of how little she knew about the tragedy and her discomfort over why that was the case.
She said: “I was aware of what happened, but didn’t really know anything about it until I started researching to see what I could find out.
"I think there was a part of me that didn’t want to look at it. It just looked too painful to read about. I didn’t know how to respond to it.
"What interested me was that there seemed to be a reluctance to engage with it in Scotland. I found it shocking that this had happened and so many people seemed to be ignorant about it. That was my starting point.
"I felt that it led into a wider question about how we only want the good stories of ourselves. In Scotland, we promote a certain vision of ourselves and it’s quite hard to turn towards stuff that challenges that.”
Although the story of Sheku Bayoh is at the heart of the play, Lavery - whose previous show The Drift reflected on her upbringing in a mixed-race family in Edinburgh - wanted to ensure the new work explored "the Scottish experiences of people of colour, Scottish exceptionalism and experiences of Scotland that are not often told.”
She added: “The narratives that came up around Sheku Bayoh really challenge us as a country about how we talk about people of colour and black men in particular.
"I felt there were so many racist tropes in the way that he was spoken about, just because he was a black man.
“The play really looks at the noise around Sheku Bayoh and how that affected me as a person of colour. It’s about the wound this case has opened up and what it says about us.
“I wanted to start a discussion about what it is to be Scottish and a person of colour, and how a lot of our experiences are often denied or ignored.”
Patricia Panther, who was born in Glasgow and still lives in the city, said: “I see the play as having a lot to do with what happened to Sheku Bayoh and his family’s reaction, but also on the issue around race and racism in Scotland, whether people are being racist or not, and and whether they think they are being racist or not.
"Race is not something that’s spoken about a lot in Scotland, even among people of ethnic backgrounds. There’s a lot of unrealised emotion.
"You don’t really realise that you walk around feeling scared. You’re sitting on a bus waiting for somebody to say something to you or you know when you’re in different environments or places that you stand out. There are a lot of pre-conceptions. A lot of people don’t expect a Scottish accent to come out my mouth. They’re actually shocked.
“If I go to a place in Glasgow that’s unfamiliar to me I definitely worry – my shoulders go up and I brace myself for something to happen.”
Saskia Ashdown, who was brought up in Dumfries and Galloway and is now based in Edinburgh, said: “I feel that this play is so important, not only to Scotland, but to me personally.
"It sits very heavy in my heart and of the work that I’ve done in my career so far it’s the piece that means the most to me.
"It’s not often that you get to work on something that really feels like it could create some sort of change. There’s a lot of emotions that come with that.
“Hannah has such a beautiful way of presenting difficult conversations and things that a lot of people who are Scottish and black find it difficult to bring up, not only to people who might be overtly racist, but also our loved ones. The conversations that we are forced to have with our family, partners and friends can be far more difficult. The underlying tones of racism are a lot more insidious.
“It’s so important that it’s black women in the cast and Hannah herself is the director. We have shared experiences, we can talk freely and allow ourselves to really feel all those emotions which are really necessary to bring to the piece.”
Lavery’s play, which the National Theatre of Scotland is producing with the Lyceum and the EIF, is being brought to the stage months after the emergence of the global Black Lives Matter movement in response to the death of 46-year-old George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis at the end of May.
Large-scale protests in Edinburgh and Glasgow sparked debates over why their links with the Caribbean slave trade could be traced to monuments and street names, but were not widely known about.
Ashdown added: "We’re just not taught about our country’s history when it comes to slavery and racism.
“Holding ourselves accountable allows us to be better and make choices that give more people the humanity they deserve. Blind love in any capacity isn’t useful. Our silence is complicity.
"We’ve seen through the Black Lives Matter movement that our country isn’t innocent.
"At the protests in Glasgow and Edinburgh, Sheku Bayoh’s name was brought and people were reminded about what has been happening here too. What has happened over the past few months is going to provide a different foundation for audiences now."
Panther said: "I think, after what has happened with George Floyd and Black Lives Matter, people are willing to speak about things more. I’ve noticed with my friends that we’re more willing to broach the topic more.
“In a sense, I feel emboldened to talk about it for once in my life. I’ve never felt like I’ve had a place to say anything, because people get offended and don’t think they are racist. There’s a lot of micro-aggression that people don’t realise they have.”
Lament for Sheku Bayoh was being filmed at the Royal Lyceum in the same week that the city council announced the appointment of Scotland’s first black professor, Sir Geoff Palmer, to chair a review of statues and street names in the city with historical links to the slave trade.
Lavery added: “It’s been a very difficult year for people of colour in Scotland. In some ways, it has meant that people are more often to difficult conversations, but those conversations are still difficult to have.
"Having to have them or witness them in the middle of a pandemic, which people of colour are experiencing more in terms of illness and death, when we have had all the rhetoric coming from America around race, has felt like an onslaught.
"Looking at our own history and who we are it is really difficult painful work which requires a lot of effort, openness and honesty. I think we’re maybe on that journey now, but I don’t think it will be easy.
"I hope that people who expressed a desire to find out more will maybe see this show as a way of doing that. It’s important for us to hear all the stories about this country, not just the ones that make us look good.
“It feels really exciting and a real moment to have these incredible actors and the National Theatre of Scotland tell a black Scottish story. For all of us our main hope is that no longer will Sheku Bayoh’s name be one that people don’t know. We want people to say his name and for us to stand with him and allow a space for him to be mourned as a man and a father.”
Lament for Sheku Bayoh will be available to view on 20 and 21 November via nationaltheatrescotland.com or lyceum.org.uk.
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