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The Architect: ‘On the 30th anniversary of Stephen Lawrence’s murder our play has visions of a different city’

 (Emilie Chen)
(Emilie Chen)

This year would have been Stephen Lawrence’s 48th birthday. Instead we find ourselves commemorating his death, 30 years after a senseless racist attack that took place while he simply waited at a bus stop in Eltham, south-east London.

I was 10 years old when the murder happened, and it shocked me to my core – it was the first time I realised it was possible to die because of the colour of my skin. When I started directing theatre, a lot of the shows I made explored race, ethnicity and belonging – I think this was a response to that initial shock, an attempt at understanding.

At the start of this year, I was approached by Bradley Hemmings, artistic director of the Greenwich and Docklands International Festival, and asked how I would like Actors Touring Company, where I’m artistic director, to respond to this 30th anniversary commemoration.

Initially, I declined. The sense of responsibility was too great, the pain and anger still too raw, but through speaking with some artistic collaborators and friends we realised that there was a way of coming together to create a respectful, uplifting, and hopeful experience.

The first person I spoke with was Mojisola Adebayo, born and raised in south-east London at a similar time to Stephen, Mojisola has an incredible understanding of the environment that Stephen would have grown up in.

It was Mojisola who first suggested that the play could take place at a bus stop – such an ordinary and everyday setting. After riffing on this location, and the idea of perpetual waiting, we agreed that it would make sense to end the wait, for a bus to arrive... and for us, the audience, to step aboard.

At some point early on in our conversations we invited Roy Williams to join the project. When Roy enrolled on the playwrighting course at Rose Bruford College in Sidcup in the early Nineties, he was given a list of pubs in south-east London to steer clear of, BNP and National Front strongholds. Roy’s body of work from No Boys Cricket Club in 1996 through to Death of England: Closing Time (opening at the National Theatre this month) is like a 30-year record of evolving race relations in Britain.

We agreed that even with theatrical stalwarts Roy and Mojisola at the helm, we needed more voices. This essentially had to be a community response to this seismic event in British history – no single artist could respond to this moment alone. Mojisola suggested Dr Vanessa Macaulay, who was born on the night Stephen was killed. Her work explores physicality, safety and how physical safety is compromised or negated in public spaces. It was thinking of and working with Vanessa, that unlocked the overriding themes of the production: Black Lives, and the hopes and dreams that accompany them.

At Actors Touring Company we are currently producing a season of work called Transformation Season: three productions which respond in different ways to the same question, can we transform the painful legacies of history into a future of hope and possibility? The Architect is the final production in this season, and with the writers mentioned above plus Bola Agbaje, Dexter Flanders, designer Natalie Pryce, sound artist Xana and a brilliant cast, we are creating a bus journey – taken in Stephen’s honour – that explores the rich potential of Black lives, hopes and dreams.

Mojisola sums up the sentiment of the piece by invoking the Sankofa bird, “This will be a performance and remembrance that will uplift people and give us joy. That is Blackness. It is beautiful. Like the Sankofa bird we look back and fly forward. Even in sorrow, we create something that moves and keeps the movement moving on.”

So, our immersive theatrical bus ride, The Architect, is an exploration of possibility and potential, of expectations and ambitions. Our writers have responded to broad concepts that in some way relate to Stephen’s life and legacy: waiting at a bus stop, a mother and her expectations, the dreams inhabited by young people falling in love, the independence that teenagers begin to carve out for themselves, athletics, and in relation to Stephen’s wish to become an architect – architecture, the ability to imagine, plan, design and build what doesn’t exist – literally and metaphorically.

This hasn’t been the easiest of productions to create; making a show in a fully resourced theatre is hard enough – the challenges of putting an immersive show on a moving London bus are coming at us thick and fast.

We’re limited in capacity, as a double-decker can only carry 55 passengers per trip (possibly fewer once stage managers, sound and lighting operators, plus their kit, and the actors, are on board), so to increase capacity we are running two trips per day (three on the weekend) and also creating a free standalone event called The Architect’s Dream for anyone who hasn’t managed to get a ticket for the journey but would like to experience a sense of the show.

Further challenges live in the minds of our production manager and producer where I can only imagine red routes, parking bays, traffic management, support vehicles and the stipulations of riding a bus (no standing on the upper deck!) must be keeping them awake at night.

It’s important to state, this isn’t a biopic, nor a play about Stephen, or the life he may have gone on to live, this is a celebration of the myriad Black lives across the UK, and in London specifically – vignettes, moments of life, snatched conversations – overheard on a bus.

We have worked closely with the Stephen Lawrence Day Foundation to ensure that they are happy for us to go ahead with the project and that our ambitions for the show are in alignment with their hopes for Stephen’s legacy. Together we are imagining a vision for a different city, one devoid of intolerance and hatred and instead, filled with love, togetherness and joy.

The Architect and The Architect’s Dream is a co-commission by Actors Touring Company and the Greenwich + Docklands International Festival. For more information visit festival.org