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
“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.”
“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 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
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
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
No hits me
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
And I am feeling rage
I’m definitely feeling rage
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
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
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
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
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 having more time to notice things in the world
Giving people more time to scroll through socials and feel something…
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
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
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.
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.”
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
transgressions of boundaries and consent
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.
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?
Especially when looking away is the most popular thing to do?