STOP and search. Three words that remain emotive for the black community, due to the disproportionate number of black people that are stopped by the police, supposedly for suspicious behaviour.
The issue is brought to life in a revival of Barrie Keefe’s 1979 drama, SUS. Set on election night, 1979 – when Margaret Thatcher celebrated her victory as Britain’s new Prime Minister – the revival of SUS couldn’t be timelier with the general election taking place this week.
Starring British actor/director Clint Dyer, the compelling tale – which has been adapted into a film and will also be performed as a play at The Broadway in Barking next week – centres around Delroy (Dyer); a black man who has been brought in by the police for questioning, on suspicion of murdering his pregnant wife. Brought in under the new ‘SUS’ laws that made it legal for police to stop and search anyone, purely on suspicion, Delroy is interrogated by D.S. Karn (Ralph Brown), a witty and psychotic racist, and his violent sidekick D.C. Wilby (Rafe Spall.) The officers’ callous humiliation of their suspect gives way to a barrage of violence, subsequently leading to a devastating conclusion.
“SUS reflects a lot of my experiences with the police, and experiences of other people I know,” says Dyer, who also produced the film. “It’s important that people get to the heart of the matter. We all know that these situations happen. But most of the time, we never feel the right type of sympathy for the person it’s actually happening to.
“We tend to be concerned for the mother who loses a child, or the children who lose a father. But this is a moving story about the actual victim, and it really penetrates the heart instead of the head. A lot of the time when we see portrayals of black people, it never tends to touch us emotionally so that we understand how it feels when these kinds of things happen.
“But when you see this film or this play, you get it. It finally lands why so many black people back then had such a resentment for the police; it finally lands why it is that many fathers leave their kids – because they can’t handle the lack of power they have in their lives. I really think this film is the catalyst to understanding some of the problems that happen within the black community.”
Does Dyer have any fears that the drama could make black Britain – particularly youngsters – even more apathetic about the police?
“What I hope is that this film makes youngsters more political and shows them that they have every right to go where they want and that they don’t have to set these boundaries on themselves about what street and what postcode they can go in. Some young people are so entrenched in hating each other that they can’t even travel out of their own area. How ludicrous is that?
“That’s why this film is so relevant today. It was set 30 years ago and yet nothing much has changed since then. 10,000 people are stopped per month on Section 44 [of the Terrorism Act]. How many of those do you reckon are black? We’re six times more likely to be stopped. And then you have to question how old the people being stopped are. You know a lot of them are in their 20s.
“If police were only allowed to stop and search people under suspicion of terrorism and couldn’t charge them for anything else they found on them, they probably wouldn’t stop them. But they’re allowed to stop people and say, ‘I’m stopping you under Section 44… oh, you’ve got a bit of cannabis on you. Ok, we’ll do you for that instead.’ That goes against human rights.”
A firm believer in the importance of knowing one’s past, Dyer feels that SUS offers a real insight into black people’s history in Britain.
“How many films are there about Hitler and World War II? Every nation has stories about their past. Why should our stories not reflect what we’ve experienced in Britain? The problem is that we often look to America for stories about ourselves. But the truth is, those stories aren’t about us. They’re about African-Americans.
“We don’t have the same problems that black America has. You can go to some parts of America, and they really don’t think there are any black people in England. Many Americans really have no knowledge of our history in building this country and making it what it is.”
Still, Dyer insists that SUS isn’t just for black audiences.
“My biggest hope is that it reaches both black and white audiences. It’s amazing to perform this play in front of a variety of people and know that they all take something from this piece. It’s neither a black or a white story. It’s about England.”