LLLC’s Kirsty Herrington paid a visit to the Bunker Theatre to catch this festival of letters.
My White Best Friend (And Other Letters Left Unsaid) is not your average piece of theatre.
Writer Rachel De-Lahay and director Milli Bhatia commissioned eleven writers to produce letters exploring race and class, to be read by a series of actors for the first time on stage. The result is this week-long festival of letters, an experience like no other.
The Bunker has been transformed for the festival. There are three small stages dotted around the room, a bar and DJ and no seats in sight. Audience members stand during the performances and it’s soon easy to see why – throughout the show people are required to move based on certain characteristics – race, gender and class.
The first letter of the night is the title piece, My White Best Friend, written by Rachel De-Lahay and read by her best friend Inès de Clercq. Before the reading commences, the audience is reshuffled – white, able-bodied men are sent to the back, allowing black, brown and queer women to be front and centre, showing them that they are valued and loved in this theatre, this safe space. The letter details a long-lasting friendship – a tale of parties and diets and window shopping in Chanel. But it also describes hard times, encounters with racism and the difficulty black women face in trying to live a normal live, including attempting to buy shampoo. It becomes a conversation that never happens, what a black person would like to say to their white best friend, but can’t. The letter is at times humorous, relatable for many audience members, and it’s raw and honest. De Clercq performs it well, pausing at times to smile or compose herself as she tears up reading the words for the first time.
The next reading is courtesy of Ben Bailey Smith (also known as Doc Brown), performing two letters from Jammz. First up is a letter to Jammz from his white friend Stef, and it’s followed up by his own response. They grew up together and both applied to university but only Stef was awarded a place. He tried hard to fit in with Jammz and his friends by speaking and dressing like them, something that frustrates his friend (“you can be like us when it suits you, until it’s time to put your mask in the bin.”). The letter is short but snappy, extremely well written and it flows well, with Smith almost rapping the lines at times.
Last but by no means least is an untitled piece written by Zia Ahmed and performed by Zainab Hasan. After the audience is again split into groups depending on characteristics, the performance comprises two parts. The first sees Hasan reading out a series of cards featuring quotes from MPs including Sajid Javid, and digs at Muslim comedians doing whatever it takes to impress a white audience. Finally Hasan stuns the crowd by reading a heart-breaking letter by Ahmed of his experience of being a nanny, when he was often accused of kidnapping a child.
Though it’s not the first time that actors have taken to the stage to read out letters (see Letters Live), what makes My White Best Friend (And Other Letters Left Unsaid) special is the sheer emotion within the letters and the reaction it invokes from the audience. The letters are all well-crafted and thought-provoking and are brought to life by powerful performances. Innovative, powerful and hugely important, Letters to My White Best Friend is an experience not to be missed!
By Kirsty Herrington
My White Best Friend is playing at the Bunker Theatre until 23rd March. Please note performers and letters may be different to those on press night.