Review: WHITE, Ovalhouse

Created and performed by Koko Brown, WHITE explores what it means to be mixed race in contemporary Britain. A theatre-maker, spoken-word and cabaret artist, the twenty-five-year-old from North London delves into topics of race, gender, identity and mental health within her work. WHITE blends spoken-word and vocal looping to create her first full-length production, a space in which she can navigate her roots and make sense of personal experiences that have grown from the successive branches and subdivisions that is her Jamaican and Irish heritage.

Michael Jackson’s Black or White throbs steadily beneath a thick canopy of dry ice. Two microphones are illuminated by a gilded gloom and a looping machine and pedals are lit up by pinpricks of green and red. Overcast with white clouds, this black-box theatre within the Ovalhouse is bursting with irresolution as both colours confront one another in a puzzling haze that refuses to settle. Dressed in black jeans and a crop top, Brown’s smile is radiant. The edges of her mouth stretch, inching towards kind eyes that connect with her audience, banishing any form of fourth wall that dares to come in between.

Brown shifts her weight from one foot to the other and sways between her past and present. Soulful tones follow her as she journeys from aged three and upwards, reflective and steady to begin. When the music takes over, her shadow dances across blue and grey spotlights, her body surrendering to the melodic poetry as it spills forth. Dialogue is laced with a humorous cadence and feels deliciously current. A sweet-sounding call for guidance is juxtaposed with recollections of ignorant remarks made by male acquaintances in relation to her mixed legacy – this instance in particular showing how comedy can help to ground such painful episodes of displacement.  

Projection is used to celebrate and define black culture specifically to how it is experienced by Brown. Images surge and blur and stop: “To be a mix of races is to be raceless […] and yet that has never been my reality” reads a quote from Varaidzo’s: A Guide to Being Black in the novel The Good Immigrant. It lingers on the back wall, testing and tantalizing, before triggering a series of preoccupied monologues. Brown’s loop station also helps to bring her internal conflict to the surface so that it can be made visible. She creates harmonies with her own voice, recording layers of questions in hopes of finding an answer. “What are you?” cries a crowd from her own tongue, an interrogation, demanding to understand her identity and determined to find out where she belongs.

WHITE is incredibly vital. It gallops across a lifetime like a wild horse and submits to the swollen, choking feelings that come with such a divided sense of self. As a performance, it is supremely unique and deeply affecting. To end, Brown stands proud as a mixed-race woman. The lights return to neutral and then fade to black, whispers of ivory vapour still hanging in the air. In all of this, there is one thing for certain: the stage will always have a home for her. Brown need never fear that.

WHITE is playing at the Ovalhouse until November 25. For more information and tickets, see www.ovalhouse.com/whatson/detail/white-by-koko-brown1