For his first solo theatre work in 17 years, hip hop dance leader Jonzi D looks at being offered an MBE in the New Year Honours list. As subjects go, it’s hardly hip, but he’s well aware of that. “Of course it won’t harm your image,” a colleague tells him. “You’re already mainstream. That’s why you’re here.”
Having made his name as a hip hop MC, dancer and theatre artist, Jonzi D is now best known for curating Breakin’ Convention, the hugely successful Sadler’s Wells festival of hip hop dance. The proposed MBE would recognise that work; he beams with pride, then broods over the implications of “Member of the British Empire”, with its roots in the colonial past.
The Letter is a bouncy solo work, with Jonzi D playing himself and the friends, colleagues and family who offered opinions on the MBE. In the process, he looks at how his own life has changed, at attitudes to race and achievement in Britain. A neighbour from his childhood in Bow ticks him off for lack of gratitude, putting her shopping down to argue with more vigour. A garage mechanic, bent over a bonnet, quotes Sun Tzu and Malcolm X while pointing out the political pitfalls.
In the broadest sketch, another friend smokes a cigar and celebrates black progress: “Mandela is free! There’s a black family in the White House! Our parents sang ‘We Shall Overcome’ and sat at the front of buses and now you overcame!”
The Letter is self-consciously confessional, at its best with the people Jonzi D cares about. The suited dance advocate is a generic figure, but I loved the account of the family Christmas, with Jonzi nervously awaiting the opinion of his big sister Ruth, “the most English black woman in the world”.
The programme opens with a selection of short works. “You all right?”, asks performance poet OneNess Sankara cheerfully, after a grim piece about gang rape. Then she sings a light, witty song about drifting relationships. Ugandan company Tabu Flo dance with good-humoured energy.
Jane Sekonya dances The Seven Deadly Sins with sensuous weight, from an undulating, shimmying gluttony to flopped sloth, wearily channel hopping. The soundtrack, spoken by Sankara, is a series of adverts. She purrs promises, then rattles through the small print. The dating chatline for Lust asks, “Are you looking for the one? …or two?” as Sekonya writhes.