Black and Blue is the clever title given to two plays, broadcast on consecutive days, that, through a blend of drama and documentary, examine attitudes, events and reactions following the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, who was shot by a white police officer on the 9 August 2014. Brown’s death caused uproar and protests across America and the world and empowered the Black Lives Matter movement. Each of the six plays, in part one entitled Hands Up, is a vignette of personal insight peppered with broadcast footage from the aftermath of the shooting. The plays are adapted for radio by Judith Kampfner. Hands Up from the stage and the second play, String Music, from a short story by George Pelecanos (The Wire). Both were recorded and produced in America.
Across the plays there is a sense of inevitability that such a shooting happened to Michael Brown but it could have been any black boy. One mother hopes her unborn child is a girl as a boy “you’d be born with a bull’s-eye on your back”. Common to the plays is intelligent reflection that masks palpitating anger and immense repressed frustration.
Let me get two pet hates out of the way first of all. The first play, Hands Up, is a docudrama. So it’s a hybrid. It’s neither a drama nor a documentary. I’m not a fan of hybrids. Docudrama is an art form, and I use that term loosely, that doesn’t work well. The descriptions, the factual content, the narrative are interesting but it is, ironically, often more bloodless than that which is dramatised. Listen to the first few minutes of the second play, String Music, and although it’s a monologue we are utterly in the world of Tonio.
My second pet hate is how Americans do narration. They always seem to find someone who tells the story in what I call the Huckleberry Finn voice. Inevitably the narrator has a middle America voice and who could be a well rewarded voice over artist and they narrate in that passionless, almost monotone way, that lulls you to sleep. So, all that aside, what are we dealing with in these two plays?
Across the six vignettes in the first play we are treated to varying perspectives, inevitably bleak, on life for young black males in America. Without wishing to return to a pet hate but the style makes this play a blunt instrument. Much more subtle and I believe more effective, perhaps over a longer and slower timeframe, is the revelation of stories and allowing the audience to seep into the world of repressed, fearful individuals. However, such is the brevity and variety of each vignette that we get a broad sense of the severity, irrationality and consequences of threat to the life of a young black man. To listen again offers greater depth and detail in what appears to be a shallow format.
The plays and playwrights in Hands Up:
How I Feel by Dennis A. Allen II
Walking Next to Michael Brown by Eric Holmes
Superiority Fantasy by Nathan James
Holes in my Identity by Nathan Yungerberg
They Shootin! by Idris Goodwin
Abortion: Letter to a Beautiful Soul by NSangou Njikam
These short docudramas are theme or event based. In a way that makes them interesting and gripping. They are in contrast with part two, String Music (a single play) which, it is immediately apparent, is character driven. Instantly we are inside Tonio’s head. We know what’ he’s thinking, what he’s about, we hear the basketball tapping. Our imagination and empathy are fully engaged.
Tonio’s passion is basketball. It’s his escape from the constraints of being black in a rough part of Washington DC in the summer of 2001, “pickup games is where I throw off all the worries”. However one hot sweaty afternoon it goes wrong for Tonio when he crosses gang members and he sets a threat on his horizon. How will he manage?
The radio 4 afternoon drama audience isn’t probably used to authentic Washington DC street jive but they got a taste of the real thing from a cast that are mostly native to the area. Congratulations to Radio 4 for putting these two plays into a slot that isn’t an obvious choice for such material.