Sticks and Stones: previewing a new play by Dameon Garnett
Updated: Jan 15, 2020
I interviewed Dameon Garnett about his new play, Sticks and Stones.
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What’s Sticks and Stones about?
Dameon Garnett: A woman of a working class background (Tina) is sacked from her job of managing a catering department in a secondary* school after she sends a series of offensive jokes on social media. Leading the dismissal process is the Deputy Bursar (Afua); mixed race, middle-class, and on the cusp of promotion, whose self appointed commitment to inclusivity and social justice will only make things worse for the catering manager. Having been on friendly terms (with similar aged children) the dispute descends into bitter recriminations. At the heart of the conflict is an issue of social class, since Tina feels resented for reasons of her background, and an issue of race, since Afua feels obliged to stand up for ethnic minorities. The play is about the limits of free expression in a democratic society.
Where did the title come from?
DG: There’s the old expression: sticks and stones may break my bones, but names can never hurt me. This is not a commonly heard expression these days. I am not sure many people would agree anymore with its sentiments. The term ‘offensive’ seems to have acquired a power that it didn’t have before.
I also thought that the phrase in the title was appropriate because it is not meant literally; it just means that physical harm is real and verbal harm is not. There is now a new sentiment though that language can be physically harmful. Besides, having a non-literal title appealed because people have started to take literally things that were meant figuratively. This expression represents a moral view, not a literal intention. So I thought it worked well.
What challenges did you come across in writing this play?
DG: I originally tried to write about this theme before, but I was skirting around the issues too much, for fear of causing offence. I had to change the play and ‘dive in’ in order to test the limits of what can and cannot be said.
So the challenge here really is exploring the issue of offence, whilst keeping the audience onside enough to still care about the characters. Also, unlike my other three plays, this one was harder to get to the production stage.
Finally, I’m a white male writing about offensive comments to do with race, despite a strong mixed race female character. Originally, I had it in mind to co-write the play with a black or mixed race writer, to ensure Afua’s character was strongly drawn and represented. In the end I wrote the play myself, although I workshopped it extensively with directors and actors who are not white themselves – hence it was another way of making sure those voices were heard, and were strong enough. I’ve also been lucky in finding an excellent director, and an earlier draft was short-listed by the BBC.
Why did you write this play?
DG: I started to feel very passionately about the issue of free speech. It became a concerning development to see people get arrested and acquire criminal records for jokes that were in poor taste. At the same time, I enjoyed arguing the case for social justice, put forward by Afua. Afua’s character reminded me how, for many years, including to the present day, many teachers and students have exercised their prejudicial expressions, unchallenged.
Why should an audience see this play?
DG: Well I suspect that many other people share my concerns about freedom of speech in a social media age. I think that we need plays about this kind of issue. Theatre is about exploring difficult topics: it should not be a safe space. So whilst the play may make the audience feel uncomfortable at times it will hopefully provide food for thought.
* Originally said independent school.