Two middle-aged men sit opposite each other in a prison cell. One is white, one is black, and they appear to be of a similar age. “I know you don’t I… I haven’t seen you in years”. Thus begins In Search of a White Identity: a well-intentioned but ultimately flawed tale of schoolboy reunion and reconciliation. It touches on many pertinent issues around race and politics in 2020, but fails to give the gut-punch needed to truly do those subjects justice in its 30 minute runtime.
Patrick (Cliffordkuju Henry) has been at a peaceful anti-facist march, where he was arrested under the dubious charge of “threatening behaviour”. Mickey (Drew Edwards), meanwhile, was arrested at the English Defence League counter protest for the seemingly more legitimate charge of throwing punches at someone else. Placed in the same prison cell, and after realising they went to school together, the mirrored duo are suddenly propelled into an in-depth discussion about identity and belonging, which ends up provoking some soul-searching on Mickey’s part.
Or at least – that appears to be the intention. Unfortunately, the performances never quite achieved the level of fluidity and nuance needed for the scenario to feel completely realistic. Edwards and Henry acted very theatrically, as though performing on the tragic stage. But the play was filmed as though for screen, with HD visuals and multiple camera angles. So there were pretensions of naturalism and intimacy in the presentation – but the dialogue was characterised by jarring emotional shifts, with the duo often seeming to be simply shouting chunks of monologues at each other, instead of achieving a natural flow.
The performances were not helped by a rather one-dimensional script, written by Henry. Some of the dialogue felt clichéd – at one point Patrick laments how the lives of young people have been ruined by “smartphones, porn, smoke skunk and drug deal gone wrong”. The play’s development is also overly-reliant on one character being incredibly good and one being evil. While there is on all the evidence a lot of truth in this presentation, it felt as though we never really went beyond the surface level of characterisation, which in turn diluted the impact of the play’s message.
The most interesting aspect of In Search of a White Identity was the occasional hint at the very real enemy of each character, being the British state, riling up community discord for political gain. There are suggestions of a corrupt, Kafkaesque authority at one point when it is pertinently exclaimed: “Why did they put us in the same cell – playing us against each other.” But discussion of these broader issues is undeveloped – and hinting at a political context ended up only giving a sense of what might have been achieved with more nuanced writing.
The ultimate message is that, despite their immediate differences, Mickey and Patrick are equally disenfranchised. There is in many ways more that unites them than divides. There are some nice moments when they both lament about the impacts of gentrification, and they share experiences of their difficult childhood. But the storyline is repetitive and unfocused, to the point where an apparent resolution at the end feels inexplicable rather than satisfying.
In Search of a White Identity is playing online until 6th December. For more information and tickets, see The Actor’s Centre website.