Thursday 12 June 2008

... as the mother of a brown boy... (Lamento Fortissimo)

We are telling a story. All stories are preciou. All stories are unique and there are universal truths to be shared in her story and the story of her brown boy (...) Above all we are telling the simple story of a mother's loss. The pain of a mother's loss is not affected by the circumstances. Loss is loss.

David Carey and Christine Niering

If you are still talking about a play a couple of hours after you have left the theatre then you know that the mise en scène was good. If you wake up the next morning and the first comment you make to your partner whilst having breakfast is related to the stage production you both saw the evening before, then you know that the piece was excellent. If you are still talking, let alone thinking about the play almost a week after, then the only words that come to mind are: sublime, exquisite, thought-provoking, mature and many others.
... as the mother of a brown boy... is one of those plays.

On 6 October 2005, Mischa Niering took part in a failed raid of Tiffany in Sloane Square in west London. Driving away from the scene on a scooter, he got caught up in a high-speed police chase and was killed. The police were later found guilty of taking insufficient safety measures during the pursuit. Niering was 19 years old.

As a consequence, Mischa's friends at the Chickenshed company (where he was once a member) developed an hour-long play that tackled some of the issues surrounding his death. The title of the play came from conversations with his mother. The heading to most of her answers was: ... as the mother of a brown boy...

The production is an ambitious project. Using white, big boxes as the only props the thirteen actors and actresses on stage use their own bodies as devices with which to propel the audience into the vortex of the conflict. Spoken words are rare, other than voice-overs. A staff member from Chicken Shed provides assistance to deaf people or people hard of hearing using sign language. A screen up above at the back of the stage, where the words from the text roll up continuously, does a similar service This frees the performers to tell the story with what I usually call an actor's raw material: their faces, their limbs, their eyes. Their eyes. Their Eyes. THEIR EYES. One of the elements that most caught my attention was the sudden changes the performers underwent from elation to despair, from defiance to meekness and how their eyes responded to that challenge so well.

The tale is a familiar one these days. Mischa, a mixed-race boy comes from a broken home; his black teenage father leaves him when he is very little, but his mother does her utmost to provide him with a modest but respectable upbringing. He does become a high achiever in school, only to go off the rails later on when he mixes with the wrong crowd. From then onwards, Mischa finds himself more and more isolated until his untimely demise. His life becomes intertwined with the white boxes that surround him and the cast, sometimes supporting him and pulling him through the most adverse situations, sometimes choking him. These white, lifeless props symbolise what Mischa's world has come to signify, a young man boxed in by race, deprivation, deficient education, housing and felony.

... as the mother of a brown boy... poses more questions than it answers. Correction. It does not answer any questions. And I liked that. Currently there are so many issues stemming from young people stabbing other young people in the streets of London that I would not have welcomed a play seeking to give a definite answer to a dilemma that has blighted so many communities, mainly the black community. What atmoabb does do is present issues in nuanced tones. Mischa is no angel and neither is he portrayed like that. But to the statement: 'The risk assessment was not conducted properly', voiced by the coroner in charge of the case, Mischa's mother can't help but ask aloud: 'And who conducted a risk assessment on my son's life when he was failing?' Tough question. No easy answers.

Unlike many of the other cases that have come to the public attention in recent weeks this play does not deal with young person on young person crime. It tackles a different issue, which, not for being dissimilar, has an easier solution. That of authority and the use of it. Are the police immune? And who are they accountable to? Jean Charles de Menezes' murder in 2005 in broad daylight in a botched terrorist raid, revealed the Metropolitan Police for what it is, a body that will stop to nothing to enforce the law. But what if the enforcement is wrongly handled? Who will pay for the error?

The play does not seek to expiate Mischa's faults. But questioning the procedures that led to Mischa's death is not, in my view, 'political correctness gone mad' but an attempt to 1) acknowledge that mistakes were made in the pursuit of the scooter Mischa was riding, 2) make the police understand this and make them pledge that they will take steps to amend this and similar problems, 3) raise awareness of human rights as per the European Convention on Human Rights and 4) address the issue as to why so many young people, mainly black boys, are falling prey to a life of crime.

Last Sunday, 8th June, the black actor Lennie James penned an open letter to the knife-carriers in the newspaper The Observer. My first thought on reading the document was whether this man I have so long admired for his thespian professionalism was not preaching to the converted. My second thought on reflecting on the readership of this particular newspaper was whether he was not, inadvertently, mind, pandering to the fears of the chattering classes who see these issues as 'the other side's problems'. Don't get me wrong. I know many a middle-class, middle-aged, white folk who go to the inner cities to share the workload and do so sincerely. But the feeling I get more often than not is that many of these people actually enjoy this moral tourism, partly because it assuages their post-colonial guilt and partly because they commute to these places, which means that they don't have to endure the living conditions most of the local residents have to put up with. Am I right or wrong in feeling like this?

Moreover, could something have been done to prevent Mischa from losing his life? The play points in different directions, the absent father, the wrong crowd, the young mother with a second child, the lack of support from the school, the racism Mischa encounters. Are these influential or determining factors? And which one(s), if any, is(are) the one(s) we need to focus on the most?

144 hours after I watched atmoabb I am still touched by the professionalism of the cast (amateurs? no way!), the light effects, the stunning music and the multimedia stagecraft. A panel discussion after the play brought a much needed lively debate on some of the issues I've highlighted above. And it was the last speaker of the night, a man who advises the police and the mayor of London on racial issues, whose words still reverberate in my mind after four days. He talked about the community's role in safeguarding our achievements and in keeping the police and other government bodies in check (he was referring to the new 'stop and search' laws in particular). Furthermore, he said very clearly that we all had responsibility for what happened in our doorsteps, because it takes a village to raise a child. To that gentleman, I say that with this review I am already contributing to that child's upbringing and I am proud of that.

... as the mother of a brown boy... is on tour now, for more information, please click here

Copyright 2008


  1. Wow...we are an ocean away but this feels very much like the streets of Philadelphia. The story is ever same.

  2. It is sadly the same and what pains me most is that more young people are dying unnecessarily every day.

    Greetings from London.



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