(Another one guaranteed to lose readers...make sure to read the additional notes at the end.)
“Kill Whitey!” As a middle class high school student in the American midwest, it was shocking to hear these words for the first time on late night community television. Week after week, though, the angry black man would show up, hang a Jamaican flag, play reggae music, curse out those who called to make requests, and shout black power slogans at the TV camera. Frightening yet fascinating, racial conflict became an exciting aspect of late Friday night television.
Fast forward ten years and an ocean away to Theatre Royal’s new production of Jean Genet’s The Blacks, an infamous, racially charged play. Billed as the first UK staging in fifty years, this updated edition relies heavily upon the language and styles of hip hop, but came off as toothless and dull to this American reviewer.
Most of The Blacks is staged as a play within a play: a group of white-faced black actors enter as a royal entourage (including The Queen), and a group of working class black performers enter, carrying a coffin containing what they claim to be a white woman murdered in hatred. The next 90 minutes are spent attempting to convince the audience of black hatred and violence in a white world by re-enacting the murder while covering up the killing of a traitor to the cause before executing the establishment members. Along the way, two members of the performing party attempt to throw off their hate to love each other, and a preacher is barred from the community for sympathising with whites.
Technically, The Blacks is something of an intentional mess: the script is very much in the absurdist tradition, short on plot and long on causing intentional discomfort for the audience to make a point. Boasting two directors (the pseudonymous Ultz and Excalibah, the former also designing), we see actors milling about, passing off hand mikes, and shouting over each other - it’s not engaging or involving and rarely advances anything. Such a staging fits with Genet’s style, and also presents a (sub-conscious?) play on the stereotype of the “lazy black”, although pulling off the chaos night after night clearly requires a great deal of work.
Music plays a large role in this production, and while not a musical, the songs fit the mood and are appropriate enough. No composer is credited, but Carl Ramsey’s lyrics are fitting.
In terms of casting, The Blacks is very much an ensemble piece, though Tameka Empson stands out as the white-faced Queen Elizabeth II, and Excalibah performed with a fury as the evening’s MC. Martina Barnett got the best musical numbers, a pair of chant based tracks.
When first performed in the late 1950s, it’s easy to see how contemporary conventions would have been subverted and white audiences would have been shocked and outraged by what they saw: the key plot device of a black man killing a white woman was the standard propagandist plot for keeping blacks down in society. As a historical setting, original production ran 150 years after the abolition of slavery in Britain and at the same time as the African independence movements, namely the liberation of Ghana from French control. With the loss of empire and black independence in the daily news, The Blacks would have capitalised on the fears and shame of the white bourgeoisie and its role on colonialism.
Meanwhile, Americans have since faced fifty years of open tension and media coverage regarding race relations: Watts, LA, MLK, Malcom X, Farrakhan, August Wilson, Public Enemy, The Boondocks, and even recent controversies both inside the black community (the Read a Book uproar) and outside (the Jena 6) all served to remind white society of its role in moulding the contemporary black community. Racial tension and uproar are nothing new to Americans, though great potential exists should an enterprising director attempt something similar in the US with the execution of George W. Bush and co. and a thorough damning of white America’s crimes. However, this is sadly not that production.
In comparison, the British have had race riots in the past, but public concerns over black integration and identity are muted - perhaps this explains the glowing reviews from the local mainstream press. That said, had Theatre Royal decided to do an alternative adaptation - say The Arabs - there would have been a far greater immediacy, controversy, and shock value in the production (all things Genet wanted to subject white audiences to with the play). Now, the debate over colonisation is tired, and by relying upon Genet’s base rather than extending the political and social issues, the creative team have failed to maintain the edge necessary to cut through the British class system and the audience’s expectations of black society. As it stands, this edition of The Blacks is a wasted but well intentioned opportunity.
Where: Theatre Royal, Stratford East
When: Until 10 Nov. at 7:30PM
How Much: £12-18
RZ Unofficial “Worth Paying”: £7 to see what all the fuss is about and for the cast.
RZ Other Notes: OK, biases out of the way. The RZ hates absurdist theatre, and his view of The Blacks stems almost entirely from a displeasure with the artistic movement, not with the subject matter at hand. Given Genet’s stated desire to use alienation effect (though not in the same manner as Brecht, whom the RZ adores), this is not a play that the audience (especially the white audience) is expected to like. In that respect, the play is quite successful, but don’t go in expecting a coherent plot, good dialogue, or sharp commentary on the current state of affairs. If you do, chances are that you will spend 90 of the play’s 100 minute runtime bored like the Rogue Zentradi.
If you go prepared for a challenging, if flawed work that is fully in line with the house’s history of controversial plays, you are likely to appreciate it more than the RZ.