Tomorrow will be the third anniversary of the “modern day lynching” of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old black man who was shot dead in Georgia in February 2020. Arbery was out jogging in the neighbourhood of Satilla Shores when he was pursued by three white men in trucks, who later claimed they believed him to be a burglar. After several minutes, one of the men assaulted Arbery with a shotgun before shooting him three times. The shocking crime and the way in which it was handled by the US legal system made headlines across the world, and though Arbery’s killers were ultimately brought to justice, the case reignited the ongoing debate about racism in the United States.
Maud is a verbatim play written by Jeffrey Miller and directed by Andrew French, which examines the murder of Ahmaud Arbery in detail, but also places it within a wider social and historical context. Performed by Miller and Perry Williams, the play is made up of excerpts from police interviews and trial testimony, along with audio and video footage of this and other crimes – among them the murder of George Floyd, which took place just a few months later. Interspersed with these are the familiar words of then-president Donald Trump, the powerful speech given by James Baldwin at a Cambridge University debate in 1965, and a 1982 interview with the Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, Bill Wilkinson. The point is clear: the murder of Ahmaud Arbery in 2020, while shocking, was perhaps not all that surprising. The play invites us to honour his memory, along with that of George Floyd, Botham Jean, Tyre Nichols and countless others, by listening to their stories, re-examining our own prejudices, and recognising the bigger picture that unites them all.
Video footage, projected on to the back of the stage, is used to powerful effect throughout; although the attack on Arbery is described in detail during the play’s opening minutes, it’s the video taken by one of his killers that really brings home the full horror of what happened. Similarly, the animated map that precedes it forces us to imagine the final terrifying minutes of his life as he was chased through the streets by armed assailants.
Perry Williams was a late addition to the cast after Jak Watson was forced to drop out due to illness, but you’d never know it from his assured performance. The fragmented nature of the play and the wide range of voices it draws upon calls for a significant amount of versatility from both actors, with the added pressure of knowing all those voices belong to real people. Williams’ portrayal of James Baldwin is a standout moment, and Miller’s Donald Trump is, if anything, a bit too accurate; you know an impression is good when you have the same visceral reaction to it as you do to watching the man himself.
Maud is a powerful and considered piece of theatre, and while in parts it could use a bit more polish, its foundations are undeniably strong. The careful selection of material and the ways in which it’s presented have a lot of impact, especially when coupled with solid performances and the choice to step back and allow some key voices – among them those of Ahmaud Arbery’s mother and sister – to speak for themselves. Recent headlines have shown that racist violence against Black Americans isn’t going away, and however hard they may be to watch, we need shows like Maud to keep speaking out against it, and encouraging others to do the same.
Maud is at Vault Festival until 25th February.