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Read an Excerpt of Michaela Coel’s Book, ‘Misfits’

I was born and raised in London. The Square Mile, sometimes considered Tower Hamlets, sometimes considered “City of London”; home to both the Stock Exchange and the Bank of England.

Between its modern corporate skyscraper towers and medieval alleyways exists a social housing estate. Right there, in plain sight, yet somehow unseen. It was originally built in 1977, with the aim to help homeless people in London, and that’s my proud home. Even now, there may be someone rushing past it for the hundredth time, briefcase in hand, with no idea this council estate exists.

We lived directly opposite the Royal Bank of Scotland, which somehow felt “other” and slightly bizarre. Not the Scottish bit, the Royal Bank bit.

It was clear I liked telling stories. I was told to apply for something called a drama school, so I dropped out of uni, again. It was my second go at it, and in two years I’d been to only one English lecture. The lecture was fine, was good, but I bumped into a friend on the way out and found out I’d just sat through a lecture for law students. I’d no idea. I’d even taken notes. So I left, to “tell stories.” My mum was concerned; she was an NHS mental health nurse at the time, and what could she do but watch my future fall into uncertainty? Where was I climbing to? Why was there no clear sign of safety at the end of the ladder?

I got in, to a drama school. In a year of only twenty-three. A drama school in my Square Mile; I’d grown up walking past it my whole life not knowing what it was, and now I was a member of its family. I was told its theatre attracted agents from far and wide, and during the final year they’d come to see us perform and sign the hottest talent. Like kids scrabbling for a sweet from above. Silk Street Theatre—where the hottest talent met the hottest agents, to partner with the hottest casting directors, to make the hottest period dramas.

I was the first Black girl they’d accepted in five years, a fact which the head of the school described to me as “the elephant in the room.” This was my third attempt at a university. I’d still never been into a pub, to a festival. I just hadn’t. I’d never watched Fawlty Towers or Red Dwarf or heard of any festival in Edinburgh, I just hadn’t, and struggled to converse on things I didn’t know about. I was watching a lot of TV—Seinfeld, Moesha, The Golden Girls, Buffy—shows no one really spoke about. So, I spent most of my time perched in the corridor, hoodie up.

I wrote about the resilience born from having no safety net at all, having to climb ladders with no stable ground beneath you.

I was called a nigger twice in drama school. The first was by a teacher during a “walk in the space” improvisation that had nothing to do with race. “Oi, nigger, what you got for me?” We students continued walking in the space, the two Black boys and I glancing at each other whenever we passed . . . “Who’s she talking to?” we’d whisper, “Boy, not me,” “Nah, that was for you,” passing around responsibility like a hot potato, muffling our laugh-snorts. I wonder what the other students thought of our complicity. The second time was a girl in my own year. After class, the same two boys and I found ourselves perched in the corridor; she passed and waved. “See you later, niggers!” . . . We three Blacks of Orient were posed with a dilemma—“niggers” . . . plural. This hot potato belonged to us all. I chose to act. I called her back and calmly gave her sound advice. She smiled, continued her way and never said sorry.

Drama school was problematic in so many ways. As an Evangelical Christian, the plan was to teach the homosexuals about Jesus, but I accidentally ended up becoming best friends with some and learning from these other kind of misfits. Yes, homosexual bonds replaced biblical ones. I still love the character of Jesus. I just started paying attention to the stuff written around Him, and didn’t care for what I read.

We were told at school, if we wanted to pursue this, we should be “yes” people, and expect to be poor for the rest of our lives. “Climb because you want to tell stories.” I loved the concept! All of us united, climbing toward storytelling at the risk of poverty, screaming “Yes!”

In a class exercise, however, the teacher commanded we run to point A if our parents owned a home or to point B if they didn’t. When everybody else ran to point A, and I found myself isolated at point B, I was astounded. Had land-owning taken over my race? Why did this class exercise even exist? I thought, then blogged about it. Not about how hard it was not owning a house; I wrote about the resilience born from having no safety net at all, having to climb ladders with no stable ground beneath you.

On top of it, all our ladders were faulty, born climbing a ladder before we could walk, and better climb fast lest it snap beneath your feet! I told people to keep climbing, for the love of it, whatever the craft, not because of financial profit, or safety. What is “safety”? I wrote that such circumstances can leave you feeling destined for defeat, or it could do something else; it could breed a determination, a relentless pursuit of one’s dreams that no safe man could ever replicate. I changed the narrative, twisting it in my favor.

This idea of a profit ladder was producing such a desperate pursuit in some around me. For those who had no means of getting more—they were arrested. I was aware, even then, that the proportion of Black people imprisoned in the UK was almost seven times our share of the population.

I loved the concept! All of us united, climbing toward storytelling at the risk of poverty, screaming “Yes!”

I blogged again.

One day an emergency meeting was scheduled between our year and the teachers. We gathered. Some students made small talk about the toilets not flushing, a teacher assured they’d be fixed, then BANG. “Michaela, what are these blogs?”

I’d upset people, people who didn’t see color or class. A year later, a friend saw me perched in the corridor. She apologized for going to the teachers back then and orchestrating a meeting that she and many others knew would take place long before it occurred. I also knew that already, because a homosexual gave me a tip-off in advance: tribe.

I just loved the craft. I didn’t mind the occasional “nigger” slip or military coup; I just wanted to be a lead on the Silk Street stage, I had to get a lead part at least once. I’m the first Black girl in half a decade! How could they not? My ego’s dreams came true. I was to play a role so important it was the name of the play— Lysistrata in Lysistrata—and my year were really happy for me. We only later found out this performance wouldn’t be on Silk Street; it would be in South London, a thirty-five-minute drive across the river. My mates were sad. They hugged me. “No agent is going to come to this, Michaela, not the hot ones. They simply won’t cross the river.”

I lived in E1; everyone who lives in E1 knows: we live by the river, but even we don’t cross it.

There was also the option to remove yourself from a main show to do a fifteen-minute solo piece; rarely did anyone do this as it wasn’t on Silk Street, it was in the basement floor of the theatre.

Misfits: A Personal Manifesto

But this wasn’t about agents anymore; it was a chance to create something that wasn’t a period drama designed in period costumes. I wanted to make something for this period, so I did both. I wrote a dark comedy called Chewing Gum Dreams. A title born from a poem; that poem born from an image in my mind. Of a tall council flat, tall as the Tower of Babel, winged falcons soaring round its highest floor in perpetual circles. Watching the jet planes and helicopters fly by, curious of life beyond their tower, but terrified of leaving it. Their wings were weighed down by gossip, dissemination, rivalry, fitting in, but also by love, passion, dreams. There’s only so much a falcon could carry, so we’d offload the things society taught us were most superfluous: dreams, love and passion, and down they’d descend. Dreams, free-falling from our tower block, already forgotten before crashing into the pavement, trampled on by our newly acquired designer trainers, squashed into the pavement like chewing gum: Chewing Gum Dreams. I played eleven parts. The response in that basement was something neither I nor they had ever experienced, and on that high I did what I do best: I dropped out.


Excerpted from Misfits: A Personal Manifesto by Michaela Coel. Published by Henry Holt and Company. Copyright © 2021 by Michaela Coel. All rights reserved.

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