Tim Hochstrasser reviews My White Best Friend (And Other Letters Left Unsaid) which is now playing at The Bunker Theatre, London.
My White Best Friend (And Other Letters Left Unsaid)
20 March 2019
The Bunker has become an intriguing alternative and edgy venue effectively cocking a snook at the more establishment fare on offer at next door’s Menier Chocolate Factory. Time was the latter would have been the place for radical experiment, but it seems something of a pattern that alternative venues mature into something more familiar under pressure from the bottom line. For now, the Bunker is placed to come to for challenges to conventions.
This latest show is something of a hybrid: not a play at all, but not a simple set of read letters either in the manner of Letters Live. Instead, a DJ plays sets before, between and after the three readings in which an actor, often a friend of the writer, reads an unrehearsed script, which in each case seeks to detail the under-examined assumptions of a white man or woman about a black friend. These are letters that might have been sent, putative musings, rather than direct confrontations. The materials deployed vary from night to night so this review can only offer a snap-shot of one experience. The results on press night were uneven and unsettling, albeit often with exciting creative implications.
The first – which is the title piece – was by far the richest piece of the evening. In fact, this item is really what justifies the ticket price. Rachel De-lahay, as read by Inès de Clercq, offered an evocative account of growing up brown in Birmingham, full of acute description and social observation, and effectively realised characters. The points made here about failures of empathy and lack of curiosity, and their effect on a friendship were not just well made but possessing of a modest cumulative effect all the more powerful and convincing for the verbal care and restraint and the studious avoidance of (justified) anger. This had its effect on the audience who heard the text mostly in rapt silence and internal recognition of the true portrait offered of the continuing limits of social connections when filtered honestly through the prism of race in today’s Britain.
But there was an upbeat and inspiring aspect to it as well: the letter also showed how it need not be so; that other choices were and are available if only we are willing to embrace them. In this sense, the author was making a similar point to the familiar contention of E.M.Forster that what we need is more self-conscious attempts at empathy and connection and the importance of developing a 360-degree view of the world. In microcosm, De-lahay is making the same point as was made just recently and so memorably in The Inheritance. That epic drama was so powerful because it goes beyond the challenges of one particular group to present inclusive human aspirations and solutions that anyone can embrace. This letter confers a similar hope and emerging collective possibility.
In contrast, the much shorter second item by Jammz represented a couple of letters read by Ben Bailey Smith that were set in hip-hop rhythms. Bailey Smith delivered these with witty relish and panache, though the humour was bitter-sweet given the seriousness of the underlying themes. Here the focus was on the complaint of a white kid growing up ‘in the hood’ that he was unfairly judged for taking opportunities open to him and wrongly criticised for inauthentic immersion in black culture when no other choice was offered. There was a serious exploration of issues of privilege here under the wry banter of the form.
The third and by far the longest piece by Zia Ahmed, simply called Untitled, was unfortunately far less rewarding and skilful. Full marks to the accomplished actor/reader Zainab Hasan though for trying to bring to life a miscellaneous set of fragments that lacked coherence and offered an undifferentiated, monotonous tone of politicised anger threaded through a series of quotations which the writer invited the audience to deplore. Whatever one’s political views, this was simply lazy writing when judged against the quality of what had gone before.
As Letters Live has shown there is a real public appreciation for the reading of letters, real or imaginary. They offer an interactive emotional and political space in which the play of ideas and memory can resonate with the audiences own experiences without the distraction of a play’s narrative and plot. The number of themes in play here may be fewer but the concentration and focus may well be sharper and better directed to shaping hearts and minds. Inevitably, as in cabaret, the quality of the items varies from night to night, but this is just the sort of event the Bunker ought to be hosting.