Lyric Hammersmith, 22 January – 14 February 2009
Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide
Lemn Sissay’s Why I Don’t Hate White People, at the Lyric Hammersmith, should be compulsory viewing for white Britons that don’t think they’re racist.
For anyone that considers colourblindness a positive attitude towards race, or claims that they “don’t even see” skin colour, this show could be an uncomfortable but necessary wake-up call. Colourblindness, as Sissay points out, is an illness.
Sissay – creator, writer, sole performer and subject matter of this autobiographical show – has a unique perspective on white British attitudes to race. Raised in Lancashire by the care system, he didn’t meet another black person until he was 18 years old.
This experience – of being raised as “one of them” – allows him to pick feverishly at the truth underlying Britain’s vaunted multicultural society, and unravel the mystery behind why, when life keeps handing him excuses, he still doesn’t hate white people.
For a career performance poet and veteran of his previous autobiographical one-man show Something Dark, which toured the world for three years, Sissay is an unusually nervous performer.
The show’s format is choppy, requiring him to hop from narration to anecdote to persona as instantaneously as the abrupt lighting and sound cues. The pace seems to leave him physically breathless, and causes him more than once to trip over his words.
Director John E McGrath seems to think the text lacks theatricality, and has provided Sissay with a mime for nearly every phrase. One minute he’s rowing upstream towards the truth; the next he’s teetering on the edge of childhood, ready to dive into adolescence.
To be fair, Sissay’s writing is liberally laced with poetic metaphor, but physically enacting each one encourages overly literal surface readings. Besides, Sissay seems the most relaxed and confident when narrating as himself in his own voice. The show is only fifty minutes long; his presence and his words are engaging enough to hold our attention at least that long.
In fact, at the risk of doing Sissay down, his message comes across most strongly when he’s reduced to the role of projection screen.
His focus is on well-meaning, “invisible” racism: when people make a point of sitting by him on the bus to prove they aren’t racist, or claim to be colourblind only when confronted by colour, or tell him he isn’t a black man – he’s a human being.
To this end he’s filmed a selection of white Britons responding to his query, “What does ‘white’ mean to you?” Primed by the aforementioned anecdotes, we don’t have to strain very hard to hear the interviewees’ subconscious minds screaming, “Don’t mention race! Say anything but race!” The result is a series of varyingly eloquent but uniformly evasive meditations on blizzards, laundry, Snow White, weddings, cleanliness and everything other connotation of ‘white’ bar race.
It’s only thanks to Sissay sharing his personal experiences that we’re able to identify the ingrained prejudice these responses reveal. However benevolent he may feel about white people, you may well leave the auditorium with your own opinion altered.
Written by Lemn Sissay
Crew includes John E McGrath (director), Rachana Jadhav (designer), Nigel Edwards (lighting designer), Simon McCorry (sound designer) and Clive Hunte (videomaker)
Cast includes Lemn Sissay
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