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The Blacks

Jean Genet
Theatre Royal, Stratford East
(2007)

Production photo

Jean Genet was always an outsider, however much he was taken up by the French cultural intelligentsia; ex-jail-bird, former prostitute and homosexual he identified with the exploited and the dispossessed. His attachment to an Arab tight rope walker and time spent with the foreign Legion increased his identification with non-whites and in later years he was an active supporter of Black Power in his association with the Black Panthers and for Palestinian rights but, when he wrote this play, first produced in Paris in 1959, he was already asserting black identity with a scathing attack on whites.

In a prefatory note he wrote:

This play, written by a white man, is intended for a white audience, but if, which is unlikely, it is ever performed before a black audience, then a white person, male or female, should be invited every evening.

The organizer of the show should welcome him formally, dress him in ceremonial costume and lead him to his seat, preferably in the first row of the orchestra. The actors will play for him. A spotlight should be focused upon this symbolic white throughout the performance.

But what if no white accepts the invitation? Then let white masks be distributed to the black spectators as they enter the theatre. And if the blacks refuse the masks, then use a dummy.

We have come some way in fifty years. The multi-racial mix of the audience at Stratford East would have surprised the dramatist but the reactions of the audience show that his play has lost neither its point nor its power. My white, middle-class, middle-aged companion admitted to feeling actively threatened at times and the reaction of the black audience, especially to the paean to negritude that begins 'I see beautiful blue-black skin, thick lips and broad nose' shows that, long as we have been saying 'Black is Beautiful' and even in this theatre, which supports and encourages such a wide range of black culture, there is still need for reinforcement and still smouldering embers of anger.

I am not so sure how happy Genet would be with what co-directors Ultz and Excalibah have done with his play. This is a 're-mix' based on Robert David Macdonald's translation. They have reworked the text, transforming more formal speeches into rap songs, slam poetry and hip-hop. This certainly connects with much of the audience, though I found actors singing (and often speaking) into microphones interrupts contact between them and the spectator, while the reworking and production did not help to clarify what is already a sometimes fragmented and confusing text.

A Queen and her courtiers - and here they are clearly our current monarch and British officialdom - arrive to watch a group of blacks play out their murder of a white woman. There is also a trial and an execution going on but it is all a ritualistic charade. The blacks are trapped in white concepts of them as sexually potent, violent savages under a patronisingly benevolent empire. For two thousand years God has been white and it is going to stay that way. It may be a charade, but is one borne on a current of rage.

Among the hard-working cast co-director and DJ Excalibah plays Archibald, a cross between a director and an MC for the play within the play. Though largely wedded to his microphone, I could hear his fine voice more clearly when he occasionally abandoned it, and Rosie Wilson's positive performance of voluptuous Virtue could also hold the stage with no need of amplification. Nolan Weeks established a charismatic presence, whether singing or speaking, as gyrating Village - designer-director Ultz had fashioned him jeans that sport a codpiece, a very modern idea of the black man as stereotypical sex symbol.

Real black skin is not enough for Genet's pastiche of racial stereotyping. A box of shoe-cleaning equipment plonked downstage centre is an important symbol. Archibald is blacked up with boot polish (a reminder of the way blacks used to copy the make-ups of whites in vaudeville minstrel 'coon' shows). Black is the colour of the criminal: the murderer must black up too to commit the crime. In this world of Black and White the white Court, sitting watching from a platform in front of the proscenium, is played by black actors in white-face and they, of course, are just as stereotypical. There is a brilliant piece of Royal condescension when Her Majesty is lowered to sit on the stage edge to have a tête-à-tête with members of the audience. Tameka Empson is almost as funny as the Queen as in her Olivier-nominated role in The Big Life. She handles this scene with a display of inspired improvisation. Hers is the performance of the night. Though she never unbalances the production, she never misses a laugh while keep her dignity throughout.

It happens to be one of the worst lit shows I've seen for ages. The audience is faced by a television screen whose brightness puts the on-stage actors' faces in the shade and oscillating lamps to the beat or rap seemed to be lighting nowhere, while with a DJ as co-director you would have thought the sound balance could have produced clearer voices. But it is not technical considerations but the work itself that makes this a far from easy evening. Its unravelling may not be clearly understandable but it has a visceral charge that carries its message more strongly than intellectual argument.

At Theatre Royal until 10th November 2007

Reviewer: Howard Loxton