Interviewing Nicolas Kent, Tricycle Theatre

Blog by Milan Rai , Nicolas Kent

I was in two minds as to how to write up the interview with Nicolas Kent. Our usual format in PN is to just to present the transcript of the interview, and that’s what we did in the end (for an unusually long three pages), but I was very tempted to write it up in a more traditional journalistic style. These notes are a small move to bringing a bit more of the flavour of the thing over.

When I called up to arrange the interview, Nicolas Kent was very gracious, but it was clear he was under a lot of pressure of work and he had only half an hour to spare. This meant that a lot of things didn’t get teased out enough (I didn’t try to engage with his ideas about Afghanistan, which I didn’t agree with) and some things didn’t make it in at all.

The thing that was left out that I regret most, which indicated most clearly what type of person Mr Kent is, and therefore what these plays really are, was an incident in relation to the Stephen Lawrence inquiry.

As everyone knows, Stephen Lawrence was a young black man killed by a gang of white racists in 1993. The inquiry into the failed police investigations describes his murder in these terms:

“1.2 Stephen Lawrence had been with his friend Duwayne Brooks during the afternoon of 22 April. They were on their way home when they came at around 22:30 to the bus stop in Well Hall Road with which we are all now so familiar. Stephen went to see if a bus was coming, and reached a position almost in the centre of the mouth of Dickson Road. Mr Brooks was part of the way between Dickson Road and the roundabout when he saw the group of five or six white youths who were responsible for Stephen’s death on the opposite side of the road.

“1.3 Mr Brooks called out to ask if Stephen saw the bus coming. One of the youths must have heard something said, since he called out ‘what, what nigger?’ With that the group came quickly across the road and literally engulfed Stephen. During this time one or more of the group stabbed Stephen twice. One witness thought that Mr Brooks was also attacked in the actual physical assault, but it appears from his own evidence that he was a little distance away from the group when the killing actually took place. He then turned and ran and called out to Stephen to run and to follow him.”

Stephen did run after his friend, but only after receiving fatal stab wounds.

The police investigations into Stephen’s death were described by the official inquiry in these terms: “There is no doubt whatsoever but that the first MPS [Metropolitan Police Service] investigation was palpably flawed and deserves severe criticism. Nobody listening to the evidence could reach any other conclusion.”

The inquiry concluded: “[U]pon all the facts we assert that the conclusion that racism played its part in this case is fully justified. Mere incompetence cannot of itself account for the whole catalogue of failures, mistakes, misjudgements, and lack of direction and control which bedevilled the Stephen Lawrence investigation.”

The most powerful and controversial finding of the inquiry was that the Metropolitan Police, and other police forces around the country, were “institutionally racist”, using this definition:

“The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people.”

The tribunal play that the Tricycle made of the Stephen Lawrence inquiry has had an enormous impact, as Nicolas Kent said in the interview:

“It was seen here and then it went nationally on tour and then went to the West End. It was then broadcast on national television. 23% of the viewing public on a Sunday evening watched that programme which was two hours almost of the transcripts of the inquiry. A lot of the people who came here felt strongly about it, and a lot of people who came here didn’t know much about it, and going away felt strongly the police had investigated this very badly. During that inquiry, the term ‘institutional racism’ was not coined but came into common usage. I know that the police, for instance, used the video recording of that inquiry for training in Hendon, and the Leicestershire police have used it for racial awareness for police. It’s been a very good training tool and it has affected a lot of people about their attitudes to policing the ethnic communities.

“I’ve talked to a lot of people who now, when they see a black or Asian person being stopped, will stand back but will want to know why the police have stopped that person, not to interfere but to be aware that maybe something wrong is happening here. I hope less so now because the police have become much more responsible than they were at the time of that inquiry.”

There is a coda to this story, which was reported by the Guardian in its profile of Nicolas Kent:

“Some time after it was staged, Duwayne Brooks, Lawrence’s friend, who was with him the night he was murdered, was arrested and charged with attempted rape. When Kent heard about the charges he contacted Brooks’s solicitor and offered to put up £20,000 of premium bonds as bail. The charges were later dropped. Brooks says, ‘We had met, but he didn’t really know me. And if I had done it, it would have reflected very badly upon him. But he still helped me and he put a lot of black people and black organisations to shame. No one else came to help apart from this white guy who put his money on the line. He is a great man and we have kept in touch since.’”

This incident reveals, in a way that no interview text can, where Nicolas Kent and the Tricycle are coming from, and the seriousness and humanity they have brought to their political witness.

I found learning about the Tricycle extremely inspiring, and Nicolas Kent’s example of daring risk-taking extremely challenging. How can Peace News emulate the boldness of these plays, predicted to be financially self-destructive and yet now part of the global conversation about these issues?