The Drama of Stop and Search, from the Streets to the Stage

Stop Search, a play examining the human story behind stop and search in the United Kingdom, will launch in the Broadway Theatre, Catford, London on April 27.  I spoke with the play’s writer, Dominic J. Taylor, about why people might go see Stop Search, the support they have received to date, and what the play has in common with the Beatles. 

What can people expect from Stop Search?

Theater that makes you part of an urgent conversation. A story that is both ancient and contemporary because it is about people's struggle to survive the times. Ethnic profiling, suspecting people as guilty of a crime on the basis of their skin color, has gone from an unseen injustice to front page headlines.  The UK government’s own panel on the riots singled out stop and search as a reason for the huge anger and disillusionment amongst young people towards the police.

In the United States, the Trayvon Martin case has forced this issue onto the mainstream agenda.  Stop and search is a daily reality for much of the United Kingdom’s young black community.  In 2009/10 there were nearly three million stops or stop and searches.  Of course this is a daily reality for police as well; we can’t assume there’s a single motivation guiding police who take part in stop and searches.  Stop Search the play is for anyone who cares about the direction our society is going but all of us involved in the play believe it’s also for anyone interested in a compelling story.  The play isn’t about lecturing people or pointing fingers; it leaves the audience to make up their own mind.

Why should people come to see the play?

If you currently (maybe quietly) think that you don't care very much that black people are stopped at seven times the rate of white people in the UK, watch this play, then see if you still feel the same at the end.  Less than 10% of these stop search encounters lead to actual arrests.  But statistics only tell one side of this story.  What does it actually mean to live with stop and search?  To be the parent whose young son is so fearful of the invasive and humiliating stop and search encounters he's endured he won’t leave the house anymore; to be the children younger than ten years old who are stopped by police many times their age; or a young man who was stopped five times in one day, each time for no apparent reason other than his skin color?  Stop Search draws on all of these stories and more; it shows the human side for both groups—police and communities—and the human cost of stop and search.

What kind of reaction has Stop Search got so far?

I had a good feeling early on. When I called up Rick Ward one day (designer of the Beatles Anthology album covers to name but a few of his many accolades), told him what we were doing, and asked would he design our poster; his reply? "How soon do you need it?"  We have had fantastic support from all sides of this debate as well as the theater community.  We just announced that the already most impressive cast of Stop Search would be joined by the voice talents of Bill Nighy and Sian Phillips. The internationally successful director Thierry Harcourt has come over from Paris to put this play on in Catford, South East London. Political, policing, and community representatives have all been extraordinarily enthusiastic and supportive.  We hope to have some political panel debates after showings.

Your background includes the prison and justice system as well as theater—an unusual mix perhaps?

Many people's lives encompass striking contrasts don't they? That's life for most of us. The difference between being eight years old and forty-four, as I am now, is harder to adjust to than the move I made from striding about in britches onstage to acting in charge of a prison wing. Both of these entail fronting up an activity that could easily be viewed as absurd.

What kind of research went into the play?

Eight years in the criminal justice system helped. My friends at StopWatch know their stuff about the experience of police use of stop and search powers. I also interviewed parents and children directly affected.

Why the subject of stop and search?

The scale of the problem is horrifying. Conversations with friends and colleagues about our different experiences of raising teenage boys brought it alive, not just as statistics. Gathering personal testimonies it became overwhelming; the sense that this was a hidden, untold, or ignored story shared—in many of the essential details—by a lot of people. After a while of speaking to people who live with the experience of being routinely targeted, harassed and humiliated by police, there was no choice really, other than to do everything I could to do justice to their accounts.

Stop Search is an initiative of StopWatch, a grantee of the Open Society Foundations. Further details and tickets are available on the Stop Search website.

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