Everywhere he looked there was white: his foster parents, his teachers, the other kids in the playground.
Race isn’t an easy subject to tackle in 50 minutes, but Sissay’s brief autobiographical show, is as much about race as it is being recognised, being seen. He despairs of being told by people that they don’t see colour, they consider themselves colour blind (this is something, he suggests, they should be worried about, medically speaking).
Sissay, a poet and performer, who is currently an Artist in Residence at the South Bank delivers his verbal essay in a manner somewhere between stand up and that of a kids’ TV presenter (echoed by what I think was the music from Trumpton playing in the background) trying to make sense of something huge but also very simple. He describes his own nervous reaction the first time he was confronted with a black person; he talks about the girls who cosy up to him in pubs and ask to stroke his hair, the students who assume he will always have a Rizla handy, the drunken sun-pink men who declare: “you’re alright you are”, and the old ladies who insist on asking that most loaded of questions: “So, where are you from?”
On two occasions Sissay breaks off to show a short flurry of vox pops projected onto the set, one of ordinary people describing what the idea of whiteness means to them, the other the same question set to a group of Arctic explorers (for what could be whiter than the Arctic?). The responses of the latter, surrounded as they are by ice and snow the extremes of the earth seem weighted with greater profundity, even if this isn’t necessarily the case. It’s nice to be reminded that what we think of as white light contains every colour there is, but ultimately not that helpful in context.
There is a wish that Sissay had taken the two distinct threads of this show, the one about his childhood experiences and the one about whiteness and what it means to people, and pushed them both further. As it is the show hops from one spot to another too often. Literally. There is a physicality to Sissay’s performance; he huddles on the floor and jerks his body about, occasionally darting behind and peeking over the three white plastic monoliths that form his stage set.
On the evening I saw him, his delivery was hesitant, and several times he slipped over his lines, but I suspect this was just an off night rather than the normal way of things. Having covered a lot of ground in a relatively short space of time, the show ends on a potent note, with Sissay acknowledging that growing up black in a white world made him, shaped him: it’s difficult to hate the place one came from.