Croydonites Festival review: ‘The Letter: To Be Or… MBE?’

By - Wednesday 25th November, 2015

Did he, or didn’t he? Tom Black enjoys finding out at the Stanley Halls

Photo by Vipul Sangoi, used with permission.

For an autobiographical one man show, The Letter: To Be Or… MBE? contains a surprising number of characters. Jonzi D, ‘hip-hop theatre pioneer’, was offered an MBE in 2011. Across an intimate, innovative hour, Jonzi presents his audience with the reactions of his friends, his peers, and his neighbours in Bow, East London. And he plays them all himself. As the eponymous epistle (sorry) arrives, the show begins. Jonzi’s reaction is one of mute terror.

This is the only slight weak point of the show. Jonzi is no professional clown, and while that doesn’t make his slapstick unwatchable or rubbish (there’s a clever bit with a piece of string), the show’s mimed opening is just too long. We work out quite quickly how conflicted he feels – he has a superbly expressive face – but then spend another few minutes having this repeated to us with more facial expressions and leaps around the stage.

Unsurprisingly, it’s in the spoken word where the show truly comes to life. Jonzi D delivers rhymes and rhythms that show off his significant hip hop chops, something that’s explored explicitly when a fictionalised young dealer talks of the various ‘names’ of East London who have taken the king’s shilling in one way or another, and ‘good for them’. Why shouldn’t Jonzi join them? If Dizzee can take millions from record companies, what’s hypocritical about a gong on Jonzi’s chest?

I’d take it if they’d just change the name

Photo by Vipul Sangoi, used with permission.

This last question is one the show very definitely answers. How can he accept the label of ‘Member of the British Empire’? He jokes in the show that he’d take ‘Victim of the British Empire’. In a post-show Q&A, he admits he would take the honour if they “just change the name”. The idea of civil honours is not Jonzi’s objection – indeed, the cast of characters he presents is a love letter to modern Britain, to public service, and to setting an example for others – but the thought of officially suffixing his name with that of an entity that colonised a quarter of the globe is beyond the pale.

There’s a visceral anger coiled up behind every beat of the show. Missteps aside, Jonzi’s opening physical clowning is given power by the implied alternative response: his wide-eyed fear could so easily have been simple, unfiltered rage.

Which, of course, the audience is shown before the show is over. “If you take it”, one of Jonzi’s friends tells him, “you’re saying you don’t remember shit/They’ve got away with some horrendous shit/Took our land, gave us the Bible and called it quits”. A sequence involving John Terry is the stand-out moment, triggering reluctant laughter, then widespread shock, then spontaneous applause. All under the British flag, of course, which from about halfway through the show, hangs limply at the back of the stage. The metaphor writes itself.

Slow to warm up. By the end, a blazing furnace

You might think that an element of the show’s suspense has been removed by this review. You can probably guess whether or not Jonzi accepted his MBE. But the story still manages to present a pleasing turn in its final minutes. We get even more intimate, more truthful, and we’re left satisfied. Despite being the potentially inaccessible tale of a hip-hop theatre practitioner being offered an MBE, it’s a fundamentally human story.

The Letter: To Be Or… MBE? is a slow-burner. But while it takes a little too long to warm up, by the end it’s a blazing furnace. CroydoNites Festival, which must surely be called a roaring success and begged to return, promised pieces that were “confrontational, controversial, political, autobiographical, surreal, hilarious and downright brilliant”. Jonzi D most certainly delivered.

Tom Black

Tom Black

Tom is the Citizen's General Manager, and spent his whole life in Croydon until moving to Balham in 2017. He also writes plays that are occasionally performed and books that are occasionally enjoyed. He's been a Labour Party member since 2007, and in his spare time runs an online publishing house for alternate history books, Sea Lion Press. He is fluent in Danish, but speaks no useful languages. Views personal, not representative of editorial policy.

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