My White Best Friend (and other letters left unsaid)

Rachel De-Lahay, Nathan Byron, Somalia Seaton, Zia Ahmed, Milli Bhatia, Matilda Ibini, Jammz, Iman Qureshi, Anya Reiss, Nina Segal, Tolani Shoneye
The Bunker
The Bunker Theatre

Inès de Clercq Credit: The Bunker
The Bunker Credit: The Bunker
Inès de Clercq Credit: The Bunker

Are there important things you wished you had said to a friend and never did? Maybe it was because of politeness or awkwardness or even inexperience but you never said those things.

That is the inspiration for an engaging show created by Rachel De-Lahay and Milli Bhatia that is funny, moving and incredibly powerful. Eleven writers were asked to write letters “that say the unsaid to the people that matter most.” Each evening, a few of these are read out by performers.

My White Best Friend (and other letters left unsaid) is set in the Bunker reorganised to feel like a warehouse party with a DJ playing dance music, a cash bar to one side and slightly raised areas for the performers on each of the other three sides with everyone standing.

The first letter spoken by the white Inès de Clercq is an imagined one from Rachel’s white best friend written by the black Rachel De-Lahay. It includes some account of the things they enjoyed together from music to drama work, but Rachel’s friend becomes aware of odd distances between them. These come to a head when someone at a house party turns on the television news of the killing by police of Alton Sterling, a black man and the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests which Rachel had attended and not mentioned to her white best friend. Rachel later also tells her she was unhappy that she failed to challenge other people at the party who say such things as “don’t white lives matter?” and “where’s white history month?” The pair are left sad and frustrated, but Rachel’s friend is trying to understand better, saying she just “is not that white girl yet.”

A similar gap appears in the poetic letters by Jammz which take the form of a letter from a white friend Stef to Jammz and his reply. Both are spoken by Ben Bailey Smith. While Stef claims similarities with his mate because they share a culture and both come from the endz, Jammz insists Stef “can't see things through the same eyes” and that black isn’t just something you can choose to be.

In Zia Ahmed’s piece performed by Zainab Hasan, the emphasise shifts to the complicating factor on ethnicity of class and the way some non-white people don’t help the problem of racism. Much of what Zainab reads come from cards giving exact quotes of comedians, politicians and others. To a friend who complains about being abusively called a Pakistani when she isn’t, Zainab quips, “you want your racism to come with nuance.”

Zia includes quite a few provocative things from Home Secretary Sajid Javid, a man who we hear earned three million a year working for Deutsche Bank and now as Home Secretary makes matters worse for non-white people. “He helps making racist laws. Every day I hate him more.”

But the piece finishes with its most moving section In which we hear of Zia’s account of his difficulty as a nanny to a white child being repeatedly questioned by strangers and police checking he isn’t a child abductor.

These are voices that rarely find their way on stage and yet reflect a good portion of the population. Their subject matter certainly touched a nerve with the almost entirely young audience who, though they were standing, seemed more involved than other audiences I have seen for a long time in a theatre. It's a riveting, entertaining and important show.

It reminded me there were things I would have liked to have said to my black friend Rose, a nurse whom I met when a first year student in teacher training. She tried hard to convince me that Britain was a racist society and I would have none of it, till later when we had lost contact something happened that made me realise I was wrong.

I was being praised on teaching practice in a primary school by my supervisor when he wondered what I did “for the negroid faces in the class. You know the ones straight down from the bamboo trees on the bongo drums.” His argument was that even when they score higher than white children, they are less intelligent. We argued for several hours, till he gave me a simple ultimatum: accept they are always less intelligent and pass my practice or refuse and be failed. I stood my ground, was failed and wrote it up with my objections to the college. They did nothing about it but convinced me that everything Rose had said was right. I have since then marched many times against racism including with thousands of other people in London on 16 March.

All that would be in my letter left unsaid to Rose who never knew how she and a racist tutor who knew about that friendship changed my life.

If you didn’t get to see this imaginative, sensitive and exciting show, take a look at the YouTube video of Rachel’s letter being read by Inès de Clercq, and tell your friends about its hopeful message which concludes with the words, “we have the ability to change the world.”

Reviewer: Keith Mckenna

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