Writer: Cliffordkuju Henry
Director: Victoria Evaristo
Set at the time of the Black Lives Matter protest and the English Defence League marches in the summer, Cliffordkuju Henry’s new play In Search of a White Identity is a 30-minute exploration of how the personal and political interact. By putting two old friends together in a cell on the day of a particularly violent clash between groups, their discussion quickly turns to race, the misconceptions of shared history and mutual isolation in the country of their birth.
Builder Mickey has been arrested for affray seeking to defend what he believes are the rights of white working-class men to earn a living and buy houses in the local area, while social worker Patrick is accused of threatening behaviour after marching to highlight the vast inequalities he still experiences. Childhood friends, tension in their holding cell rises as the pair clash over the fault lines of modern Britain and just where to draw the line.
Henry’s play wastes no time getting to the meat of the story and after quickly recognising one another again, within a few minutes Mickey and Patrick are at each other’s throats. Staged across three scenes, the conversation is packed with purpose as Henry explores the anger on both sides, touching on the effects of Post-War immigration, slavery, Windrush, knife crime and the changing economic status of a city dominated by foreign investment.
As conversation, this filmed version of In Search of a White Identity can feel a little stagey, a not quite organic turn of conversation or delivery of statements between two virtual strangers that wants to make as many connections as possible. Over a longer performance, these would emerge more naturally, allowing time for the digressions and circular loops of thinking that typify real arguments.
Regardless, Henry controls the fluctuating tension between Patrick and Mickey extremely well with peaks in their confrontation that quickly settle into a mutual respect, even common ground, before firing up once again. The piece is particularly strong on showing that both men ultimately want the same thing, to feel safe, respected and heard in their own country.
And it is the personal, shared history between them that is most evocative in Henry’s writing, the alternative view they both have of their 70s childhoods as Mickey suggest it was all different back then when people of various backgrounds just got along, while Patrick demonstrates that fear, racism and even knife crime have been a feature all his life. As both characters break down their facades to reveal violent fathers, domestic abuse and how this has shaped the men they become In Search of White Identity becomes far more tangible, and this is where Henry could extend the duologue to look at how their personal heritage offers different perspectives on their shared experiences.
In some ways Mickey is the showpiece role, a chance for Drew Edwards to summon all the venom, aggression and powerlessness of the white working-class man in a number of tirades against the state. Edwards makes Mickey an intimidating presence, often unsympathetic but just tempered by these painful reminiscences of his mother’s suffering. But it is Patrick who comes more sharply into view as the piece unfolds, and played by Henry we see the rationality and reasonableness of his personality as he makes connections between ideas and their consequences in ways that give Mickey pause for thought, all with a humanity that draws on his own troubled legacy of masculine behaviours.
More than a platform for opposing views, it shows the interconnectedness of issues that sacrifice the personal to maintain the political status quo, a country that welcomes you before it turns on you – surely enough material to add another 30-minutes or so to a piece with so much to say. This is not a story in which either character is pushed to change their views or even to concede ground, but a chance to explore how the failings of modern Britain have created two disenfranchised communities with the same goal.
Available here until 6 December 2020