Updated: Nov 18, 2021
Review by Nadia Ribot-Smith
'My White Best Friend’ is a statement new show from Eclipse Theatre which brings to light the often-unspoken dialogue that exists around race relations in Britain today. Its genius concept started from Rachel De-Lahay, who penned a letter to her white best friend, detailing everything she always wanted to, but never said. This letter, originally read cold to a crowd by the white best friend in question is now performed by another white actress. This concept forms the premise of the show which evolves wonderfully during its three-hour-long runtime. I saw the final 9th of November performance at Left Bank Leeds, which ended its Northern tour.
The title alone was enough to hook me. Scrolling through websites the day before, its presence stood out, bold and assertive. After a quick scan of the premise, I was sold. The idea of a letter containing your innermost feelings being read out on stage by an actor who has never seen the text. The raw exposure of things unsaid and the silent script we all hold. To have it specifically addressing race utilises the concept to its full potential and to have it read on stage by white actors makes this the very best of experimental theatre. I almost hesitate to call this theatre. This is expression pure and simple. No props, no effects, just four actors and four letters. Yet the show holds all the nuance and more of typical stage shows. From the excitement of knowing the letters are totally unseen to the actors’ live reactions to the material, multiple levels compete and vie for your attention.
Despite it being a night dedicated to breaking down barriers, there is still a tangible tension in the room. There’s still a taboo I think to myself as the show progresses, the realisation surprising me. But again, that’s the point. We’re still not comfortable talking about race, the events of the past year have tricked us into thinking we are. Often, online spaces allow us to hold race discourse at a safe distance, but that safety feels a world away from the immediacy of the voices on stage. I sit, frozen in my chair, terrified that they’ve gone too far. That they got too angry. Too angry for the white audience to listen. The diversity of dynamics is almost too much to absorb. My nervous system is in overdrive trying to regulate and anticipate the reactions of everyone including myself. The first two letters fly by, a cocktail of adrenaline and nerves.
The first letter is undoubtedly the angriest. A young woman navigates her interracial relationships in the wake of the George Floyd tragedy, revealing deeper issues embedded beneath the surface. “Can I trust you to speak up for me?” the white best friend is asked. The explosion of repressed rage continues, overwhelming, tactile, and arresting. When it ends the room is stunned silent. No one claps and the only sound to break the silence is the click of the microphone as the next actor steps up to take his place. The second letter takes a lighter approach. A gay black man tackles workplace dynamics and internalised homophobia, making jokes and providing pauses for the audience to laugh at. I can’t tell how much of the laughter is in part due to the comedy, in part due to the relief. In a show like this, there is not a moment that is not a statement. Every stumble. Every hesitation. Every laugh. There’s a line about “white history month’ and the audience explodes. ‘I get this one!” it feels like they’re announcing, “I do! I’m one of the good ones!”
The third letter is written by a middle-aged black woman following her experience of subtle racism in the world place. The actress seems unsure of how to approach the material, flitting between a simple dictation, trying to embody the writer, and the feeling of a poetry reading. As she shifts tones my eyes draft towards the black BSL interpreter who is expressing clearly and fluidly. She doesn’t need to try; she can just be. The stiltedness of the actress becomes more apparent in contrast. “Sorry for the patois,” the white actress adds when addressing her writer counterpart in the end of show Q and A session. The crowd explodes. Again, it’s hard to know what exactly people are laughing at. Her earnestness. The relief that she actually mentioned it. The patois.
The fourth letter is the shortest, and a real departure from the tone of the previous three. A young black woman reminisces on her youth in the care system and her friendship with a white girl. This letter is different. Both queer, there is an atmosphere of acceptance and palpable comradery. There’s no frustration, just admiration. The content subverts the title of the show. This is in essence, a love letter to her white best friend.
“It makes you feel awful,” one actress admits afterwards. “But we’re just here to listen.” The show’s producer agrees stating that the aim with the casting was not to embody, but to simply expose. The white reaction was not be the focus, despite those on stage. The entire aim is to centre the black experience. To provide a dialogue not often empathised with from a white perspective. Representation is key. And if it takes a white body to give an insight into black words, so be it. The real strength to the show is the freeness with which it allows its writers to express their experiences, and the diversity of that experience the show manages to capture in just four voices. Anger, humour, and joy abundant, there is not just one black experience the show asserts. After all, there is no right way to navigate white supremacy. Every reaction is correct, be it indifference, rebellion, attack, or assimilation. This is a show about two things in equal parts: racism, yes, but also personal experience. Racism, that amorphous term, is so often wielded around as a catch all for explicit prejudice. The real thing and its effects on peoples’ lives, their experiences and relationships, is specific and unrecapturable in even this hours-long dedicated show.
By the last letter I am emotionally exhausted. “Retraumatising and triggering” expresses one author and I begin to question who this performance is for. “I’m not trying to educate,” Chanje Kunda responds afterwards when I ask her about the letter, “and I’m not into grief porn. I’d rather watch actual porn!” I reassess. Then what is its purpose? A sounding board for black artists to process their thoughts? A glamorously disguised lecture theatre? A ‘mutual admiration society’ for white people to go to in order to feel good about themselves?
Ultimately, ‘My White Best Friend’ is absolutely all these things and none of these things. In this lies its genius. There is no way to sum up or express the complexity of the black experience in the UK. Not in a 45-minute letter performed on stage by a white actor. Not in a 300-page novel. Not in an online BLM campaign. I’m not sure what my conclusion is. I’m not sure there is one. Racism and its effects cannot be summed up in a review. In a film. In a conversation. But maybe, this centring of black voices, as an expression of pure and honest experience, free from ‘devil’s advocate’ and external interjections, for three hours on a stage in Leeds, can go some way to lifting the veil on black oppression and repressed rage. A comfort for the black audience members and a statement to everyone else. What you take from it is uncontrollable. Intermingled with ego and expectation, but undoub