SKELETONS OF FISH
Riverside Studios, London W6
Opened 29 June, 2001

Here's the problem. Skeletons Of Fish, a collaboration between British and American performance art companies Chakra Zulu and the Hittite Empire, presented at the Riverside Studios as part of LIFT, is a piece by black men which is about black manhood. I firmly believe that as a piece of theatre it is muddled, self-mythologising, dull and sometimes downright offensive tosh. How can I, who happen to be white, say this without leaving myself open to accusations of racism?

I can start by pointing to the racism in the piece itself. Set, as far as one can tell, on some futuristic prison asteroid called Planet Alabama, it includes a single white guy who is not there so much for reasons of tokenism as to encapsulate the centuries of oppression. His only utterances are torrents of delight in his abusive tyranny over the "niggers"; "My whiteness makes me God!" he declares. These are the only representations of whiteness in the show; whether by design or by default, he stands for all white people. This is staggeringly racist, and if practised in reverse would rightly bring down showers of condemnation. The view seems to be that the way forward for black people is to swing the pendulum of iniquity back the other way rather than to stop it altogether.

On a sand-covered stage strewn with bones, with working showers at the rear (and yes, one set seems to dispense gas), ten black men and the aforementioned cartoonish white ogre move and speak for an hour and a quarter. Sometimes they are naked, sometimes in shapeless prison drab, sometimes in red skirts and Hellenic masks. They drop names ranging from Tupac Shakur to Osiris by way of Stephen Lawrence and Mumia Abu Jamal. They engage in a series of "Dementia Suites", and mix contemporary references with dystopian SF ideas and a whole broth of mythology at one point towards the end, Hittite, Egyptian, Persian, Greek and hip-hop all crop up in the same sentence.

It's loud, strident, and demands attention and respect without supplying any reason for them. It articulates the cause of blackness neither as polemic nor as art, it just postures and shouts about it as if that were enough to grant status to its viewpoint. In doing so, it ends up paradoxically doing more damage than good, simply by supplying ammunition to those who might be inclined to dismiss the thematic concerns along with the dreadful farrago on the stage. It is in fact the most arrogantly pretentious piece I've seen in a couple of years (notwithstanding my earlier review of Pink Orthodox at the same venue). That's not racism: crap knows no skin colours.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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