When Nana-Kofi Kufuor worked in a pupil referral unit, where children excluded from mainstream schools are taught, a boy once pulled out a knife to stab a fellow student.
“He ended up kicking off and I had to hold him back,” Kufuor recalls.
“He ended up with me and he alone in the cafeteria and the police were outside ready to arrest him. He was saying to me, ‘I’m not going to leave in silence.’
“He was like, ‘So, are we gonna do this together?’ And I said, ‘No, I can’t, I won’t fight the police with you.’
“He just didn’t understand, because I had always been there to protect him before.
“I just remember the look he gave me when the police dragged him out. He was never the same after.”
Even though Kufuor knew he shouldn’t and couldn’t get between the boy and the police, the incident played into his mind.
So much so that it inspired him to write a play that puts a 15-year-old boy and his teacher in a similar situation.
My Voice Was Heard But It Was Ignored is Kufuor’s first full show and will premiere at the Leeds Playhouse on Thursday before going on tour.
Writing it helped Kufuor process what had happened. “It reinforced the fact that I felt right,” he says.
“And then the more I talk to people, it’s like, yeah, there was nothing I could have done for sure.
“But right then, it weighed heavily on my heart, and somehow it weighed heavily on my heart for some time after.”
In the play, the confident and confrontational Reece ends up locking his middle-class teacher Gillian in their classroom.
The couple has a funny fight over who has the power and authority in the student-teacher relationship. It’s a relationship that has changed for the better in many ways over the years, but has become more complicated in others.
‘When too much is too much’
“How much are teachers doing now, compared to 20 years ago?” Kufuor asks. “I’m like parents now. I’ve worked in education and you do a lot more than when I was a kid. Or was it just that I wasn’t one of the kids who needed that extra help?
“Coupled with Covid, a teacher’s role is now like a parent, a psychiatrist, a guardian, an emotional well-being. I just wanted to see what it was like if a teacher said, ‘No, that’s enough, actually.’ I don’t have to protect you. ‘”
The writer didn’t just want to examine where teachers have to draw the line between being a protector and a policeman.
“I also wanted to talk about who protects whom in the context of a black woman and a black man?
“He [Reece] she says, ‘Well, it’s not about being a teacher, it’s about being a black woman. You should still protect me. ‘ And this is where the conversation really begins. “
Although Reece argues that her teacher should defend him because they are both black, he also tells her that he acts more like a white person.
They discuss whether one black person may be “blacker” than another, due to their upbringing or connection to their heritage or their sense of their own identity.
“Keeper of Darkness”
The playwright hails from Stockport, Greater Manchester, where he grew up in a predominantly white area while on his way to Ghanaian parties with his family.
“When did she become some kind of guardian of the dark?” he asks.
“The conclusion I have come to, really, is that there is no perfect way to be black. There is no way to be black. It’s just that you are black. This is just the end of the conversation. people can use it against you.
“So that’s interesting. For me, I’m just happy for who I am.”
Kufuor went from Stockport to the University of Cumbria to major in film and television. While attending a master’s in screenwriting at Salford University in 2017, she entered a BBC Radio 1Xtra competition to write a one-minute monologue.
“They were picking six people and they phoned me and said, ‘Unfortunately you didn’t come by,'” he says. “And then I got a phone call 10 minutes later and they said, ‘We’ll make you seventh.'”
The resulting film was seen by the head of new writing at Manchester’s Royal Exchange theater, who invited Kufuor to a group of writers. But he had decided to write for the screen.
“He kept calling me for like five weeks saying, ‘Will you come tonight?’ I was like, “No, I don’t really want to write comedies. I already told you, but thanks anyway. “
“I told her: ‘Theater is not for me and I never see anyone who looks like me in these spaces and I never see black shows and things like that.’
“He said, ‘Do you have a voice?’ I said, “Yes”.
“‘Well,’ he said, ‘then it deserves to be heard.’
“It stuck with me a bit and I said, ‘Okay then, I’ll try.'”
A heated debate
Kufuor is still hoping to write for the screen, most notably for the BBC reboot Waterloo Road, where he is currently a story researcher.
This means he goes to schools to get plot ideas. “What’s the drama in school? What are the problems? What are the problems?
“The thing about this show is that we don’t want the teachers to look bad,” he says. “We want teachers to look like heroes because they are. We want to show how much these people do day in and day out.”
First, My Voice Was Heard But It Was Ignored was staged by the traveling theater company Red Ladder. And the writer doesn’t want his voice to be ignored.
“It has a lot of very black themes, but I feel those black themes are very universal,” he says of the play.
“Is that sense of, where do I belong? Where do I fit in? Anyone can walk in and feel like it’s relevant to me, even if I’m not a black man or a black woman.
“I want to be in the lobby or bar and hear people having conversations. ‘Oh, she was wrong.’ “Well, actually no, he was wrong.” This is what I like best, igniting the debate. “
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