Guest Feature: OPEN LETTER to Mike Harding, writer of 'Removal Men', and Jay Miller, AD at The Yard theatre

Dear Mike Harding and Jay Miller

Re: ‘Removal Men’ at The Yard theatre

We were deeply concerned to hear of your new play, Removal Men, about a prison guard who “falls in love” with an immigration detainee.

As you will know, three Serco guards at Yarl’s Wood immigration detention centre currently await trial for the rape of a woman detained there.[1]

In one reported incident, a detainee was made pregnant by a guard, and in another, women were led to believe that if they flirted with guards, guards would help them with their asylum claims. Other Serco guards have been disciplined on numerous occasions for sexual misconduct.[2]

In this context it is alarming, to say the least, to see a play dramatising, let alone romanticising and fetishising, the lust on which such abuse is predicated.

If ever it were legitimate to speak of “love” in this context, it would be to encourage white citizens - who stand to gain from the carceral border system - to interrogate critically such a racist, fantasy fetish, and to understand how it is rooted in colonial and patriarchal conquest. It would draw their attention to the continued abuse, and call on them to mobilise, to hold their government and private security companies that run immigration removal centres to account.

Art has a potentially powerful role to play here. And to some extent, this is how the play is presented in its promotional material. The play purports to be a challenging, questioning thought-piece to provoke compassion and to encourage audiences to 'look at contemporary western culture straight in the eye’.[3]

But it fails to achieve these laudable aims. Instead, it capitalises on the real-life experiences of women in detention for a ‘state of the nation’ [4] musical, and reproduces the problems it claims to interrogate.

Set in a haze of smoke on pink carpets and potted palms the stage seems more like a hipster lounge bar in east London than a detention centre. While half-naked in a sex club, two guards purport that their job is to “help keep the women safe” while the word ‘LICK’ illuminates the back wall. As one guard puts on his uniform, including a belt with handcuffs, he sings, “I hope that later when she’s free she looks out over cross the sea / She touches her body and thinks about me”.

Through these disturbing juxtapositions unfolds the white man’s taboo fantasy of conquering the body of a woman of colour, under the guise of paternalistic care. By claiming to ask questions of whether love can exist between somebody paid to imprison the other, the play repeatedly blurs the lines of control and consent.

The entire story unfolds through the perspective of the white, male, guard - or, indeed, the white, male writer - and it has to be assumed that white people are the intended audience. The woman of the guard's lust is never seen or heard. The decision to not represent her as a person on stage protects audiences not at risk of detention from having to confront the real, uncomfortable issues of what it means in a racist, patriarchal society to give power to some to imprison and control the movement of - almost exclusively - people of colour: out of sight, out of mind.

The play calls on audiences to feel compassion. How can it, when it excludes and dehumanises those to whom compassion is due? Where compassion is mentioned, it is trivialised with lines such as, “Well, a lot of the women are traumatised. And I have a couple of pieces of music which will channel their suffering into the medium of movement,” eliciting the audience's laughter. Racist and objectifying jokes similarly appear to have been included for shock value. These sugar-coat and make light of the content and context.

A question that motivated the play is ‘why does it seem easier to go to a therapist than a protest’?[5] While we can refute the idea that it is easy to go to therapy, there is something ironically sharp in this question. When a work of art like this trivialises and clouds in ambiguity real life situations, it has the effect of diffusing rage and anger which might otherwise provide actual resistance to detention.

We find both the premise of the play and Mr Miller’s explanation of its central message and tone incredibly disturbing. In the Hackney Citizen, Mr Miller explains his approach: 'I guess I didn’t want to put something on stage which was just a repetition of what the newspapers are doing very well, which is to remind us of the tragedy [...] I suppose immigration removal centres are quite sinister but the play is sort of a tragi-comedy in a way. The characters need to be very playful so they can cope with their jobs'. Far from being merely ‘quite sinister’[6], immigration detention centres indefinitely incarcerate 30,000 people in the UK each year, 48% of whom are asylum seekers; people fleeing conflict, persecution, rape, exploitation, abuse and torture.

The journalist adds: 'rather than telling individual immigrants’ stories, it provides a different perspective by focusing on those whose job it is to detain them'[7]. If this is the motivation, the focus on the guard falling in love with a detainee and the hyper sexualisation of both the invisible detainee and tone of the play is an unnecessary and tasteless distraction to this line of inquiry.

Moreover we are concerned that the portrayal of the guard's supposedly 'loving' feelings will desensitise audiences to the abuses reported by women in Yarl's Wood, and distract from the work being done to expose them and seek accountability. Survivor-led groups who have been documenting the abuses, such as the Black Women’s Rape Action Project (BWRAP), Women Against Rape (WAR), and the All African Women’s Group [8], confirm that they were not contacted before the play. Nor had you consulted with the testimony-based human rights theatre company Ice and Fire until the day before the opening night (after individuals concerned by the promotional material had contacted you privately), although Ice and Fire were credited in the acknowledgements leaflet.

We are not suggesting that any piece of theatre has an obligation to support a particular political agenda. We are however concerned that this piece risks undoing hard work to improve public understanding of the experiences of women in Yarl’s Wood. This is not a party political issue, but a human rights issue.

These distracting and desensitising impacts have already been evident in media narratives surrounding the play. The relationship between guard and detainee was described in one article as “warped love”[9], and in another as “a love story for the 21st century"[10]. These predictable reactions trivialise and normalise the reality.

If the genuine aim is to provoke critical reflection we strongly suggest that space is made for discussion after the performances. We recommend inviting former detainees and anti-detention organisers who have been seeking accountability for sexual abuse in Yarl’s Wood to take part in these discussions, while understanding they may not wish to participate.

We also implore that in future, when making art about the abuse of an oppressed group, this group is meaningfully consulted by the authors and producers throughout the creative process, not only as an afterthought.

We look forward to your response.

Signed

A group of anti-detention activists

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[1] ‘Yarl's Wood officer accused of raping female detainee’ accessed 9 November 2016 Link: http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-beds-bucks-herts-37694762
[2] ‘'Headbutt the bitch': Why Yarl’s Wood needs to ditch male guards. Urgently’ accessed 9 November 2016. Link: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/womens-politics/11446389/Yarls-Wood-imm...
[3] ‘What is Removal Men at The Yard Theatre?’ accessed 9 November 2016 Link: https://oberonbooks.wordpress.com/tag/removal-men/
[4] Fat White Family founding member’s debut play Removal Men lands in Hackney Wick, accessed 9 November 2016. Link: https://www.hackneycitizen.co.uk/2016/11/04/fat-white-family-mike-hardin...
[5] Assistant Director Ruby Thompson on her research for Removal Men accessed 17 November 2016 Link: http://www.theyardtheatre.co.uk/blog.php
[6] Fat White Family founding member’s debut play Removal Men lands in Hackney Wick, accessed 9 November 2016. Link: https://www.hackneycitizen.co.uk/2016/11/04/fat-white-family-mike-hardin...
[7] Fat White Family founding member’s debut play Removal Men lands in Hackney Wick, accessed 9 November 2016. Link: https://www.hackneycitizen.co.uk/2016/11/04/fat-white-family-mike-hardin...
[8] Rape and Sexual Abuse in Yarl’s Wood Immigration Removal Centre 2005-2015, Black Women’s Rape Action Project http://www.womenagainstrape.net/sites/default/files/dossier_rape_in_yarl...
[9] ‘The Yard announces new autumn season’ 9 November 2016 Link: http://www.whatsonstage.com/london-theatre/news/the-yard-new-autumn-seas...
[10] ‘10 New Plays Lighting up London’s Fringe Theatre’ 9 November 2016 Link: https://theculturetrip.com/europe/united-kingdom/england/london/articles...

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