‘Institutionalised racism’ under scrutiny in ‘SUS’

Tickets for “SUS” are free for students and staff at the University of Lincoln – book in person at the LPAC box office.

May 3rd, 1979: the night when everything in Britain changed. Margaret Thatcher became the first female prime minister and according to playwright Barrie Keeffe, “civil liberties started taking a back seat”.

It is this evening that acts as the backdrop for Keeffe’s play “SUS” which will showcase the LPAC this Wednesday and Thursday, April 28th and 29th.


Clint Dyer stars in "SUS", a political play that scrutinises the stop-and-search under suspicion laws in place until 1982. Photo: Robert Day

The play focuses on a black man’s arrest in East London, under the stop-and-search under suspicion laws that were in full swing in the 1970s, and was inspired by a true story: “I used to be a journalist in the East end of London in the early 70s,” says Keeffe, “and a black guy came in to the office one day, very distressed, and had been interrogated by the police all night.

“His wife had died through miscarriage and they thought he’d tried to do an abortion on her. They gave him a real grilling and he was effectively on a murder charge until the post-mortem came through and found that it was an ectopic pregnancy. He was just let go but he was a very, very broken man.

“This story, and the racism in some police, always haunted me but I couldn’t see how to make it in to a play; it was just an incredibly hard-luck story of institutionalised bullying,” says Keeffe. “But when Thatcher came into power in May 1979, I decided to set it on election night when everything in Britain really changed.”

“SUS” itself played a big part in the repeal of the Sus laws, which essentially allowed anyone to be picked up under suspicion and date back to the time of Napoleon’s invasion of Britain: “The play was part of a campaign to scrap the Sus, laws and it was finally repealed in 1982 after the incredible amount of mass racial protest riots in Toxteth, Brixton, and Bristol.”

The play is still very relevant. Under section 44 of the Terrorism Act 2000, “blacks, Muslims, Asians, can be picked up, stopped and searched. And now seven times as many blacks are picked up under section 44 as they ever were under the SUS laws,” Keeffe says.

Though the play was written 30 years ago, Keeffe feels that racism is still prominent in today’s society: “I think there’s much more awareness of [racism] now. The struggle goes on but I certainly don’t think it’s any less prevalent now unfortunately.

“I’m sad; I wrote this play 30 years ago and when I wrote it, one critic described it as ‘an instant piece of political theatre’ and I thought it would be like Kleenex – instantly disposable – but I’m shocked and saddened that it still seems to have relevance.”

Surprisingly, the play is not downbeat throughout, but is “also a very funny play [with] a lot of humour in it,” says Keeffe. “It’s because the audience know the seriousness of the situation before the central character – the black guy played by Clint Dyer – so he’s the last one to know he’s in there on a murder charge. There’s a very dark humour to it.”

“SUS” will play the LPAC this Wednesday and Thursday, April 28th and 29th. Tickets (priced £10/£7 concessions), and the performance starts at 8pm. To find out more information or to purchase tickets, visit the LPAC’s website.

One Response to ‘Institutionalised racism’ under scrutiny in ‘SUS’

  1. Rob Dunham says:

    There’s a feature film of this coming out as well I think. Next week, 7th May?