WHITE, VAULT Festival

by guest critic Ava Davies

On the first page of WHITE’s playtext, Koko Brown writes, “This play is for anyone who has ever felt like the other”.

“You have the best of both worlds/ But you still have to pick a world/ You have to pick a side”

Koko grapples and twists and turns herself inside out onstage. She paces, wringing her hands, stares out at the audience pleadingly. She tells us at the beginning of the play that she wanted to make a piece about all mixed race people – about the Mixed Race Experience. It’s impossible, of course. Mixed race can mean – anything. It’s a gross generalisation. Is there such thing as “the mixed race experience”? Kind of – but also – not really. Not at all.

So she writes about herself. Because that’s all she knows.

“Got a lot of privilege / And I’m half white/ I’ve got the best of both worlds baby”

I am similar to Koko but I am also so vastly different. Can I really compare my experience to her? Like her, I am half white.

((Half. What does ‘half’ even mean? How can I be exactly 50% white and 50% Other? Shouldn’t it shift? Change?))

Unlike her, my mother’s Asian heritage fills up the space where her Jamaican father sits.

Koko loops the words “what are you?” over and over and I can feel my stomach clench and I cry quietly.

We are alike in some ways but then – also – how could I possibly compare our experiences? The experience of being half black is worlds away from the experience of being half Asian. Koko was brought up mostly by her white mother. I have been soaked in Chinese/Malaysian culture since birth. We both tried to reject our “otherness” but were slapped back into place. Sometimes I am white passing – that is a huge privilege. Koko has light skin – colourism works in her favour. Why am I comparing us when our experiences are so different?

“Can I find a way for them to both fit inside of me? / Where do they fit inside of me?”

I never see these stories represented onstage. The messiness, the fear, the guilt, the relief, the gratitude. In the back of my head, I still feel grateful for the white half of me. I used to think it cancelled out the other bit of me. Toned it down. Diluted it. And it does. It makes us palatable. Just enough. Not too much.

I can’t help but project onto WHITE. Koko talks about being unable to understand her grandmother’s patois and I start to cry again. I was bilingual when I was small. I played make-believe with my toys in a messy, loving mixture of Cantonese and English. When I went to school in the UK I lost the Cantonese. It dribbled out of me. Now I can understand snatches of the Cantonese my family chatter in, I can claw back some kind of muscle memory of the meaning but I cannot respond. I feel stuck. I would like to belong somewhere.

“If you had to pick a side, which would you pick?”

How much space do we take up? Are we people of colour? Are we BME? If I am sometimes white-passing does that still count me as a PoC? Are we taking the space of those who need it more? Just hearing those thoughts expressed onstage, in a space I love and cherish – it brings me relief and guilt in equal measure. We are both so lucky. We are both so so lucky.

“That is what I am but it is not just what I am/ And I am at war.”

WHITE runs through 4 February.

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