Drama

black pain redux

A dramatic monologue

Jasmine Lee-Jones

Jasmine lee-jones’s groundbreaking plays bring the humor and dynamism of internet culture to the hallowed stages of the British theater. The following monologue, first performed by actor Paapa Essiedu at London’s Young Vic Theater during its fifti­eth anniversary celebration in October 2020, bears the playwright’s signature combination of tenderness and ferocity, deftly interweav­ing narratives of personal and collective crisis. At the time of its writ­ing, deaths from Covid-19 had started rising again, theater artists were still largely out of work, and the Black Lives Matter protests following the murder of George Floyd had begun to ebb from the forefront of public discourse. When the Young Vic’s artistic director, Kwame Kwei-Armah, approached Lee-Jones to commission a short piece for the two-day event, she was in the middle of what she describes as “the most deeply confusing and traumatic period” of her then twenty-two-year-old life. Part cri de coeur, part confession, black pain redux serves as, in Lee-Jones’s words, “a time machine to the past that makes us think critically about the present.”

the editors


“dear jasmine,”

“We just wanted to check in with you after the senseless killing of George Floyd. The events of this year have really awoken us to the global problem racism still presents and our need to play our part in ending it.”

Okay.

“We are committed to antiracism and stand in solidarity with you—”

Paapa sits down. Might kiss his teeth. Indignant flick, pissed off. Doing that Black look that’s like: really?

“and the movement against ending police brutality worldwide.”

“We know it is not your responsibility to educate us but we want to know if there is anything we can do to do better.”

I sort of feel sorry for well-meaning white people

I always feel the need to be extra nice to them

I know this is rooted in the racist belief that if I am nice I will be protected or preferred somehow by said white people whilst still ensuring the supremacy and centering of said white people.

This is indeed: fucked up.

I’m Paapa by the way. Jasmine’s friend.

(to Jasmine) I think we can say we’re friends right?

Jasmine will probably nod.

Paapa relaxes even more into his seated position. Legs are maybe spread.

I’m gonna play Jasmine for a bit. So bear with.

Paapa might get into character of Jaz—don’t know what that means.

I am bedbound and bruised when I learn of your name

A friend phones me crying that she simply cannot cope any longer

And I say to her

Can’t cope with what?

And she says

Everything that’s going on

And I say

I’m so sorry I have no idea what you’re talking about babe

You see a day or perhaps two before I had deleted social media altogether

Well deleted the apps

You know them ones

I wasn’t quite ready to deactivate completely but I was growing overwhelmed at the smorgasbord of information and opinion plat­formed by those platforms

It all just felt too much to cope with

Too much to contend with

Another performance

Another character to keep up with

At a time when all that I had previously thought I knew about my character was unraveling like a loose thread on an overpriced Topshop dress not designed with my big black ass in mind

It is then I hear your name for the first time

Join the chorus of Google searches

Get lost in the overgrown jungle of thinkpieces

Articles

Digital picket signs

And black squares

It is only in death

I learn of your life.

Two days before that

I am lying in a hospital bed in Hammersmith wondering whether I should be alive

Three hours before that I am lying on a bench in West London after taking about fifty painkillers trying to die

As I lay there

Who would have thought hav­ing #BLM in your bio would be used to sell clothes?

On that bench

Realizing that this attempt was, well, just that—an attempt

Not even close to being a success

A failure perhaps of the most pitiful degree

As I lay there

On that bench something hits me

Pause.

No hits me

Literally

In the face

It’s a football probably

Some type of ball

I don’t remember

and then my head starts to throb

I close my eyes and all the world goes black.

i learn your name

You who didn’t choose

You whose death was chosen for you

Yet another needless name to adorn a needless placard

Placards

Fill hashtags

And I am feeling rage

I’m definitely feeling rage

But

I am loath to admit

All I can think of is, Why him?

Not the why him you think I’m thinking of

Another why him.

Why is it that this dead Black man…that this dead Black person…that this dead Black body in among allllllllllllll of them seems to be different?

Why did it take this Black man’s bloodied corpse to trigger what I think should be the natural human response to a dead

No

murdered person’s body?

Now don’t get me wrong I know we’ve seen this before

The hoodies up for Trayvon

The rallying for Michael Brown

And some significant if lesser ripples for other names

The Sandra Blands

More recently Breonna Taylor

And the many many other Black womxn and Black girls

Cis

Trans

Some of whom remain nameless

Whose pain doesn’t seem

To sell or capture the masses as well

But we haven’t seen it like this.

Were the others just bullet fodder?

Less consequential dominoes before the grand finale of this minstrel-inspired freakshow of white patriarchal dominance?

This question shouldn’t be so significant

Surely

But if it shouldn’t be

Why can’t I get it out of my head?

Why was I less enraged by the violence

The actual act of violence

Than the question of why this kind of violence was being spot­lighted now

How it is reverberating through the minds of people in a way that seemingly no other bludgeoned Black body had before?

I’ve already alluded to his maleness

But

There have been other cis Black men before George

So why is it this time it seems to be affecting people differently

Some people say it’s Covid

people stopping

people having more time to notice things in the world

Giving people more time to scroll through socials and feel something…

Maybe?

That feels too easy for me

People have known about this before

But chosen to ignore

As we all do

have done when we don’t want to look at something that’s ugly but true

I keep saying people and I think when I say people I’m actually talking about white people

I keep jokingly calling this renewed interest

This moment, the #whiteguiltmatters movement

But then I realize it’s capturing some Black people in a similar unprecedented way too.

Black people who haven’t really spoken before are speaking. Black people with names. Black celebrities are talking. People with money. Fanbases. Why? We know it is not the first time we have not been able to breathe. The first time whiteness has used its knee to cut our oxygen off directly. I flinch when John Boyega remarks “I might not have a career after this but fuck that.” I get pissed that someone with a net worth of apparently $6 million is—albeit even for a second—centering himself and this supposed ultimate act of selfless sacrifice while there are others far less financially and soci­etally secure who are and have been daily challenging the insidi­ously racist and anti-Black practices in their workplace even before it was popular. I say this not to “bring a brother down,” but I just wonder: If you as a member of a marginalized community have slightly more security financially or slightly more privilege, how­ever it may be, than most of the members of said community—shouldn’t you be using every second, every square inch of that space to center and platform the members of that marginalized group with the least privilege?

I also keep asking my friends most of whom agree

When have you seen a Black womxn in the public eye

Who’s taken a similar stance

Perhaps even more radical

Even more informed, learned, insightful

Being uplifted in the same regard as him

Without being called crazy

Or another ableist diminishing demeaning term?

It seems we still like our martyrs like our martins our malcolms

looking very cis masculine male.

When I critique the words of people with the right intentions some of my friends say: Shouldn’t we be focused on changing the laws?

Actual, pragmatic changes? But I don’t think this is just a case of our collective house having damaged drywall or a broken door. This house doesn’t need to be renovated. It needs to be detonated. It was built wrong to begin with.

And the sooner we accept that, the better.

The friend who originally phoned me is a dark-skinned Black woman with a high-powered position in a corporate fashion brand: an anomaly. Her workplace has integrated Black Lives Matter into their social media output because right now they know it is the most commercially savvy decision. Who would have thought hav­ing #BLM in your bio—a movement rooted in anti-capitalist, anti-establishment, and anti-exploitation practices—would be used to sell clothes?

But I digress.

I keep seeing posts

Saying silence is violence

Or

More specifically

White silence is violence

This also makes me grimace

At the amount of times I have felt violent toward white people when they aren’t silent and are assuming my point, talking over me, and making their un-silent solidarity heard loud and clear.

In the words of Drake

“You can’t listen to me talk and go tell my story. It don’t work like that when you love somebody.”

Have white people even listened and

learned enough

to speak?

Have Black people been given enough space to speak?

Are we skipping something?

i keep talking about plants. Especially when I’m referring to how frustrated I get when people only talk about ending police brutality as if that alone will solve racism or structural inequality. If you keep pulling out a weed but don’t attack the root, it will always grow back—sometimes even stronger. I grow frustrated when people—mostly men—fail to acknowledge how police brutality is inherently tied to bruised toxic white masculinity and thus patriarchy. I urge people to see that ending police brutality will in fact mean ending all of the systems as we know them. What would that look like? A world not as we know it?

Then I think maybe it’s even more insidious than weeds—more like a gas leak, or carbon monoxide infesting the house…so seemingly invisible and leaking for so long that we’ve all just accepted it’s there even though we’ve literally seen it kill people. Even though one day it might kill us.

Back to my original question: Is this death this time different sim­ply just because it is? Just the ball landing on the arbitrary roulette of circumstance? One of dem tings. You know. Shit happening.

I mean shit does happen, doesn’t it?

The first time I am touched in a sexual manner I am probably four or five years old. Sometimes I think it may have been two or three. Whatever the age, I was too young to remember the actual age I was. I didn’t consent. I couldn’t, of course. But because I didn’t actually outright say no for decades after I think I can’t call it what it is.

For decades I tell myself this is just a thing that happens that no one talks about. It is only this year I start to think maybe the things that are happening that no one talks about are happening because no one talks about them.

And when I say talk I mean…what do I mean? I mean fully talk. Not just decrying that awful thing that happened to someone over there. Those people. Them. But that thing that happened under my nose. At my workplace. In my home.

I’ve come not to blame the person who did it or at least I’ve come to understand it in a different way despite not condoning it. Men—as well as people of all genders—are by and large conditioned to view vulnerable bodies as their property. For the person who did this to me I was not only fair game but I suspect on some level they believed this was a perfectly natural thing to do. They must have inhaled this monoxide from somewhere. And despite harm not necessarily being their intention, serious harm was the effect.

I am nineteen when a man I care for deeply—at the time—tries to force himself onto me. This feeling: being a receptacle for someone else’s pleasure feels familiar but having blocked out the above from my head I can’t remember why it feels familiar. After I push him off of me, I laugh. Later on in the night I kiss him, try to please him. I hope he still likes me. Well, at least still finds me attractive. Well, at least still wants to have sex with me. Those things are all starting to blur into one and the same for me.

I don’t tell anyone, not even my closest friends, for a few weeks after. I want to keep the way I saw him in my head before alive, and I fear saying what happened might kill him dead.

The thing about both these examples is that the enactors of harm were not strangers or people who had never shown me care. But it’s

this phenomenon of abuse—abuse intermingled with care—that is perhaps the most confusing and abusive of all.

I grimace a little when a very high-profile conscious rapper—one of my favorites actually—is accused of sexual assault in a YouTube video by an ex-girlfriend.

It seems ironic—funny almost—that this man I have viewed as practically perfect—my ideal—could have done such a thing. A good one. Not just a good one. A really good one. One who had been open about his own sexual abuse as a child. One who through his truth-telling had encouraged me to come clean to myself about my own. My internal jaw drops when I realize, listening to the story beat by beat, that he behaved in almost exactly the same way as the man I cared for who sexually assaulted me when I was nineteen—bar one detail: his ex-girlfriend was asleep.

Are all monsters just cow­ards who were afraid to ask for help?

Of course it is true. That he did it. That a man with admirable beautiful qualities can also do something abhorrent.

We all can.

When I confronted that man I cared for who had done it to me at nineteen voice shaking

He said well

Once you get that feeling

Can you really control it?

(genuine) Can you?

My therapist at the time responds in a similar manner. When I tell her this story of intimacy morphing into force she comments:

“Well it is his house.”

His house

His house

A house where violence intermingles with tenderness and care

A house where we all lock ourselves into our own rooms with our own private trauma and despair

A house that’s meant to be a home?

Now can you see what I mean about blowing up the house?

I used to be scared of the dark. Monsters that might be lurking in it. Actually I still am. I’m definitely the girl who runs upstairs after turning all the lights off. Not wanting to get captured.

Then the other day I started to think what if the reason I have never quite gotten over that fear of the monster is because there’s a mon­ster in me?

What does it take to ask for help when you are in so much pain you are inclined to inflict it on others? Are all monsters just cow­ards who were afraid to ask for help? I do know that fear paralyzes. Perhaps fear is the first monster we need to deal with. And perhaps the first monster we need to deal with is ourselves.

I see that I as well as being a victim of harm have been complicit in cultures of harm in ways that I am still recognizing. This includes my main education, or actually miseducation, in sex coming from the consumption of free porn on those websites we all know that for the most part exploit and pirate the labor of sex workers

And people who don’t even identify as sex workers and had no idea their act of intimacy would be shared

Those who do not have control over their own images

Those whose content, consent, bodies have been mercilessly, per­petually stolen for mass consumption.

Images are powerful.

They can stain and taint the mind

convince us that things that are inherently

harmful

traumatizing

transgressions of boundaries and consent

are okay

viable

even desirable.

Images are not consumed in vain.

Let’s get back to the image of George.

Back to the image of an officer’s knee on his neck. Did we need to see it to know it’s bad? To know it happened? Maybe the Greeks knew it best. That sometimes images are just excess. Too much. That words are enough.

Are they?

I am in the ambulance now roughly forty-five minutes after trying to end my life. The female paramedic has taken my blood and I’m on my way to Accident & Emergency.

She begins to drive the ambulance truck.

The other paramedic, a dude, decides that forty-five minutes after my suicide attempt is prime time to start up some small talk.

“So what do you do?”

I don’t want to answer but as I said I have this fucking thing in my head that wants to placate people, please them, particularly white people, even when I’m literally on the edge.

“I—I’m a writer. Well, I act too. But I’m mainly a writer.”

He asks what type of stuff and as we continue small-talking I can’t deny that at my core even on the edge that is what I am. And I still

believe in it. So much so that even as I lie on that bench, foil-lined empty pill packets in hand, I wonder how one day I will tell this story. These stories.

“We know it is not your responsibility to educate us but we want to know if there is anything we can do to do better.”

After all of this I’m reminded of one thing: I hate the term “to turn a blind eye”—I think it’s ableist—so let’s just say looking away. To look away one must know there is something to look away from. How much longer can we look away from not only the bad thing

The bad things

But the bad things in ourselves?

Even when

Especially when looking away is the most popular thing to do?

Originally published:
December 11, 2023

Featured

Books

Life in the Algorithm

It has reshaped culture—but how? Two new books reckon with our digital predicament.
Anna Shechtman

The Night Watch

I first sought sanctuary during the Troubles. I'm still looking for it.
Darran Anderson

Why I Write

The legendary cultural critic on finding a life’s work
Greil Marcus

You Might Also Like

Drama

The Emcee Inquisition, Revisited

An excerpt and annotation
Dominique Morisseau

Drama

On Sugarland: A Play

An excerpt and annotation
Aleshea Harris

Becoming a Playwright

The sources of my storytelling
Michael R. Jackson

Subscribe

New perspectives, enduring writing. Join a conversation 200 years in the making. Subscribe to our print journal and receive four beautiful issues per year.
Subscribe