At the start of her autobiographical solo show WHITE, Koko Brown declares that originally she wanted to make a show about race, a show to share ‘the mixed race experience’. Her show reflects her personal journey to find an identity she feels happy to embrace and her theatrical journey to realise that the only experience she could write about was her own. It is this personal crux that makes the show so powerful and makes her writing sing.
Brown’s use of the loop pedal creates a profound sense of intimacy, as if she’s talking to us alone. She breathes lines and musical phrases into a microphone and sticks them on loop, capturing the confusing and circular process of trying to work out who you are. ‘I always knew what I was’, Brown states confidently at the start of the show: ‘I was mixed race, half white, half black’. But as she begins to interrogate what it means to be mixed race in Britain, her sense of identity proves to be unstable.
In his book Theatre & Race, Harvey Young writes, ‘To embody race, to act it out, involves three interrelated activities: racial interpellation, the hailing or public identification of the body as raced; racial socialization, the acquisition of racial thinking as a result of environmental pressures; and racial habitus, the development of a set of behaviours inspired by the experience of having been interpellated and socialized’. Brown repeats a traumatic moment of racial interpellation: a man saying, ‘Who’s your friend, the black girl with the short hair?’ She describes how ‘the one drop rule’ will mean that she is always hailed as black, however she might choose to define herself. ‘Pick a side but just decide what side they have picked for you’, she says, the subtle rhyme tingling like a small electric shock. Brown is unafraid of being honest about difficult feelings, confronting her own internalised anti-blackness and wondering, in a funny and hard-hitting song, ‘is mixed race privilege a thing?’ This results in a highly nuanced discussion of race.
Martha Godfrey’s beautiful lighting design is integral to the show, bathing Brown alternately in red and blue light, making her choose between them, throwing her into shadow when it all gets too confusing. Photographs of black political and cultural icons are projected onto the back wall, as Brown describes how she began to embrace black culture.
There is a risk that a show made up of individual spoken word poems might feel disjointed, but WHITE is so well-crafted that it flows easily from one to the next, each tackling a different facet of Brown’s experience. The strength and honesty of Koko Brown’s writing and her intimate delivery make WHITE unforgettable.
WHITE is on at the Pleasance Courtyard until 27 August 2018. Click here for more information.