The Letter: To be or to MBE

There’s an enlightening moment in Jonzi D’s dance-based piece where a disembodied voice interrogates him as he ponders whether or not to accept a New Year’s honour. The voice wants to know, whether or not he takes the gong, will he tell people about it? Jonzi freezes. There’s a hint of shame. It’s one of the many questions in the performance that isn’t fully reconciled, because after all, a show at the Fringe with MBE in the title rather gives the game away.

The strongest moments are towards the end, when we finally hear Jonzi’s side of the story.

Jonzi, the artistic director of Breakin’ Convention, the hip hop theatre festival, was indeed offered an MBE, and has chosen to work through his decision to reject it through the art that got him nominated in the first place. It’s a pleasing symmetry and perhaps conveys the message that art matters more than ‘honour’ better than the actual piece does.

The performance suffers for lack of structure. We see Jonzi first with the letter, trying to escape it, or destroy it. A series of repeated motions convey an exaggerated fear, although if the intention is comedic it falls a little short. Unfortunately, there’s little depth beyond this, and little progresses in the long opening scene. For some reason, Jonzi has chosen not to give narration until the final ten minutes of the play and it’s a bitter shame, as the final scenes provide a much clearer insight into his emotional state than the previous forty.

The rest of the performance covers one-sided conversations over whether to take the MBE with various characters: the patronising white civil servant who explains the 21st century take on ‘Empire’, the young would-be rapper from Bow and his furious mother, the man who gives a rousing anti-colonialist, anti-racist rant complete with song, and finally, Jonzi’s own family. Some scenes meander to a punchline, others to a message. Various techniques are used – a focus on hand gestures, stillness, repetition – but this adds to the disjointed feeling of the piece, and sometimes the choices seem ill-suited to the scene.

His physical performance is accomplished, sliding across the spectrum of physical theatre and dance from mime to hints of hip hop. The choreography and staging is often clever and the sound design is fantastic – the complex mix of music, voice overs and sound is seamless. His dance work is full of strong, clear movement, but there’s a lack of nuanced expression.

The strongest moments are towards the end, when we finally hear Jonzi’s side of the story. Seeing his reactions brings much more weight to his decision, and makes clear how much more involved we could have been in his emotional journey. There’s clearly a lot that hasn’t been conveyed, because there’s no way to weigh up the voices we hear on either side of the argument without seeing Jonzi think it through himself. Moments of dance that show his agony and indecision convey his pain well, but not his thought process.

The after-show discussion adds a lot in terms of clarity and engagement, and gives a chance to delve further into the unanswered problems. In the end, the question of the title is answered in the piece – and somewhat answered in the title itself – but the whys and wherefores, the reasoning, the depth, must wait until after the bows. 

Reviews by Frankie Goodway

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The Blurb

Jonzi D, artistic director of Breakin' Convention and hip hop theatre legend presents his charismatic solo show about being awarded an MBE. Told through the eyes of a colourful cast of characters, Jonzi uses choreopoetic language, politics and wit to paint a picture of 'stunning rhythmical clarity' (Stage). Accompanied by a commissioned score by Kwake Bass (Speakers Corner Quartet) and co-directed by Dawn Walton, The Letter is an intensely personal look at one man's dilemma: To be or to MBE. 'Treads a fine and funny balance between personal and political' (Guardian). ***** (Independent).