Gabriel Bisset-Smith is a BAFTA-nominated comedian and writer known for, amongst other things, his satirical video sketches. In one of these, ‘Bye Bye Black Mum’, he reveals to his mum that after watching La La Land and seeing the public’s increasing support of extreme right politics, he feels it’s probably best they spend some time apart. After all, she’s a mixed race woman and, while he’s mixed race too, he passes for white. Or ‘pretty fucking white’, like he says in his new play Whitewash. The optics are just too confusing and complex for the La La Land viewer, and for the sake of his career, it’s best to fall in line with a simpler, more reductive concept of race. ‘Not a good time to have a black mum’. ‘I think I’m good with that’, his mum says as the punchline drops: she’s looking forward to re-connecting with her friends in the black community, without having to explain her own son’s whiteness.
Whitewash is in some ways an extended and more nuanced version of ‘Bye Bye Black Mum’. Still comedic but more incisive, it juxtaposes the lives of Lysander and Mary, semi-autobiographical versions of Bisset-Smith and his mum, as they each try to establish a home and sense of belonging in London. Played by Rebekah Murrell and Bisset-Smith himself, their young adult lives mirror each other but the differences are telling. On a hot day in Camden, Mary narrowly avoids a police officer interrogating her about her white son; on a similarly hot day in Camden, another police officer makes pleasant small talk with Lysander about his white daughter. Mary’s drug of choice is pills (‘the high of the people’) whereas Lysander spends £90 on a gram of cocaine and tries in vain to bond with his drug dealer, with whom he feels he has a lot in common. Most importantly, Mary fights to stop the demolition of Culross Buildings, site of their council flat in King’s Cross, while Lysander works for a company called Four Walls, dedicated to preserving London’s social housing so long as they make a profit doing it.
The tension within these parallels, or divergences, is highlighted in Charlotte Bennett’s direction. Mary and Lysander begin by talking directly to each other, each with a blank wall behind them for projections. With precision and dexterity, Bennett stitches together their personal histories. As they travel to Jamaica to visit Mary’s father, or go to Lysander’s fiancée’s gallery opening, Murrell and Bisset-Smith move around swiftly, bouncing between characters – they play all of the other parts, including Mary’s Irish mother and Lysander’s hard-headed boss. Both are great performers, but Murrell is particularly adept at shifting effortlessly between characters. With every scene, every switch, the traverse stage becomes more like a seesaw tilting and wavering, simulating Lysander’s own dilemma regarding his role in the future of his old home. The projections are a useful tool for world-building, but it’s the artwork of Jenny Gordon, Bisset-Smith’s actual mum, that really brings it all to life.
Mary is an artist too, but the artistic establishment dismisses her work as unrepresentative of an ‘authentic black voice’. After she decides to paint her own experience of race on one of the walls of Culross, ‘whitewashed’ becomes not just a metaphorical adjective but a literal one, describing the gentrification and demolition of London’s social housing. Bisset-Smith is certainly revealing how families of varying skin colours are forced to navigate complex social dynamics, but he’s also critiquing the ways in which London’s boroughs are being converted and demolished by those for whom profit is paramount.
Crucially, Lysander is not immune to this critique. At its heart, Whitewash is a blistering and entertaining examination of the privilege of disengagement. Although Lysander is keenly aware of social inequality and the dangers of gentrification, he also is privileged in being able to extricate himself from those social injustices. Unlike his mother, he is able to detach. And cynically but accurately, Bisset-Smith shows that those who are afforded the privilege to disengage will most likely do so, especially when they take their own personal gains into consideration. Whitewash’s conclusion is a chilling one: in a world where it’s better to be ‘just white’, it’s bye bye to black mum.
Whitewash is on at Soho Theatre till 27th July. More info here.