My White Best Friend-NorthEveryman theatre 16/10/21
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The anticipation prior to the readings is heightened by a minimalist set, with only a DJ booth and singular table and chair, reserved for the actors who will enter the stage alone. This Everyman iteration of Rachel De-Lahay’s original concept, My White Best Friend, features letters from Liverpool-based writers Levi Tafari, Kiara Mohamed Amin, Dominique Walker and Brodie Arthur. The correspondence deals with something the writer couldn’t openly say, addressed to the person who needed to hear it most. The letters are sealed, to be opened live for the first time in front of an audience and performed by an actor without rehearsals or preparation. Tonight’s production is the moment of revealing.
The letters, centring around race, encourage the audience to see each writer as an individual, and not as a collective group. In a world where Black voices are often silenced or grouped together, individual experiences can easily be invalidated or disregarded. My White Best Friend provides a safe and open platform to speak freely about Black writers’ unique lived experiences. The choice of letters as a means of expressing these experiences means the personal stories are transformed for collective consumption; despite the intimate setting and distinct voices, there is a sense of personal yet public disclosure.
The bravery of the cast and writers is astonishing. Opening and reading the sealed letters for the first time in front of an audience, the performers’ reactions vary between laughter, sadness and discomfort. It is a courageous act to allow someone to share your personal story. In a way, the actor is almost a mask for the writer. The writers provide them the creative freedom to express their story, which allows for a more raw and honest depiction of the writers’ truth.
The first letter was written by the originator De-Lahay and read by Liverpool actor Luke Barnes. Barnes hesitates before reading the letter on which the concept is based. Few know what to expect. De-Lahay, writing to her original white best friend, describes the pair’s close and valued friendship, her memories with the addressee as a youngster, getting drunk, going out, making unforgettable memories.
However, it slowly takes a more serious tone. It’s clear that the letter’s original recipient is an ally but exemplifies the unlearning we must all do in our daily lives. It’s not the responsibility of Black people to keep fighting against racism. Racism surrounds us every day; on social media, in our social circles, in subtle exchanges, and to not call it out is to be complicit.
Throughout the letter, Barnes displays compassion and by the end of it seems to have a deeper understanding of the writer’s perspective. Examining the trope that having a Black friend automatically makes you anti-racist, De-Lahay instead implores you to recognise your privilege and to not be consumed by white guilt.
Kiara Mohamed Amin’s letter begins unconventionally. It starts with Ubah Egal reading out Amin’s detailed instructions for both herself and the audience. Audience participation is encouraged and is followed by a series of affirmations paired with the tapping of pulse points or “energy hot spots”, a technique known as Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT). The purpose of EFT is to reduce anxiety and emotional distress. We go through each energy point on the face while repeating after Egal, stating the affirmations out loud. Although initially, there’s apprehension at this unexpected and unusual approach, by the end the majority of the audience are participating.
Perhaps others take this moment for reflection. Amin’s letter not only moves the audience, but Egal too. We share the grief and sadness that Amin experienced and Egal often pauses for moments of respite. There is no judgement from the audience but rather kindness towards Egal and acceptance and empathy towards Amin. Although we may not have experienced Amin’s grief, there are tears shed and compassion felt throughout the letters. Towards the end of Amin’s letter there is a return to EFT, necessary after the hard-hitting letters Egal eloquently expressed, in both English and Somali. A collective feeling of calmness settles over the audience. Egal’s delivery and Amin’s letter act as a reminder that kindness and acceptance can go a long way.
Throughout the four letters, there is a reoccurring theme of education. Whether that’s through school curriculums, calling out friends or educating family members. Education and a listening ear are presented as the key to understanding each other on a deeper level. These letters give Black writers an opportunity to express themselves in a safe environment and share things they may not have dared to before. A leap of faith is required from the writers, and it pays off as the letters are expressed brilliantly.
My White Best Friend is a breath of fresh air to Black people and people of colour. Liverpool DJ Hannah Lynch plays familiar RnB tunes between letters, clearly recognising this need for a breather, and invites any people of colour to the stage to congregate in a safe and accepting space at the end of the performances. Looking around the room for a final time, there are mixed emotions, but in the best way possible. People crying, smiling and chatting. The individual experiences shared in the letters are unique, but we all share their underlying pain and happiness, and without a doubt, we’re in awe of their bravery.