Cliffordkuju Henry’s In Search of a White Identity directed by Victoria Evaristo, is a half-hour conversation between two friends in jail.
Mickey (Drew Edwards) and Patrick (Cliffordkuju Henry) are two old friends unexpectedly reunited in a jail cell. Both men have been arrested for taking part in marches – Patrick for displaying “threatening behaviour” and Mickey for punching someone he claims was about to punch him. The difference is, however, that while Patrick seems to have been taking part in a Black Lives Matter march, Mickey has been marching with the English Defence League.
Much like Clint Dyer and Roy Williams’ Death of England and Death of England: Delroy, In Search of a White Identity, seems to respond to the contemporary rekindling of white nationalist sentiment in Britain – a sentiment encouraged by xenophobic Brexit rhetoric, and racist statements previously expressed by the current Prime Minister. Mickey laments, how his children can no longer afford to live in London – a problem he blames on housing being reserved for refugees, or Eastern Europeans building homes “British” people can’t afford. He is therefore unashamed of his support for the English Defence League, proudly declaring that he is, “marching about the flag and what it used to mean”. In contrast, Patrick reflects on the constant fear he faced growing up as a black man in the ‘70s – a fear that has ultimately led to his decision not to have children. He reveals how, early on in his childhood, he witnessed a family member being racially assaulted by a white neighbour.
While the two men initially seem to represent polar opposites, by the end of the play they find common ground. Both moan about the impact of gentrification and the feeling that they are no longer welcome in the city they have grown up in; both had abusive fathers whom they witnessed hurting their mothers and, most importantly, both have come out to protest because they do not feel safe or respected in the country they inhabit. This finding of common ground is especially poignant: despite the play concluding with the two men finding out they are due to appear in court the next day, they make a point of planning to meet again for a talk in the future.
In Search of a White Identity thus seems to optimistically advocate for the power of conversation to allow members of opposing factions to understand each other as individuals; as humans, and to listen and empathise with each other.
At times, however, it did not feel as if Patrick and Mickey were having a conversation and listening to each other, but rather that their characters were used as vehicles for lengthy monologues surveying key contemporary issues, such as the legacy of slavery or the impact of gentrification. Towards the end of the play, for example, Patrick posed the poignant question to Mickey, “Let me ask you something Mickey, how do you feel when you see a black man assassinated?” To which Mickey responded by monologuing about a moment in his childhood in which he was drowning but was saved. Moments like this felt like missed opportunities to write dialogue that might imagine new ways of tackling the powerful themes at the core of the play.
In Search of a White Identity is a play undeniably relevant to the present moment and offers a concise and empathetic understanding of grievances currently felt by men on both sides of the debate. I was particularly impressed by Henry’s heartfelt performance – it was clear he truly believed in the words he was saying. Perhaps my main grievance was that it was too short: the lines needed more space to breathe – there needed to be more time before Patrick and Mickey started openly revealing their lives to each other, and more time for them to listen and react to hearing the polar opposite views of the man occupying the claustrophobic cell with them. I didn’t want to just be left with the promise of a further conversation, I wanted to see more conversation the audience was allowed to see – hopefully, this is not the last of Henry’s writing that we’ll see and, in longer forms, we will get to see these conversations play out.
In Search of a White Identity is available to stream on the Actors Centre website until Sunday 6th December.
On Thursday 3rd December, Booker Prize-winning author of Girl, Woman, Other, Bernardine Evaristo will also host a Q&A on the making of In Search of a White Identity. Find out more here.