Royal Stratford East, London E15
For the majority of this audacious revival, the normally irrepressibly
vocal Stratford East audience was entirely quiet. It was the sound of
several hundred people trying to decide what to make of a show that
goes right through blatant confrontation and bursts out the other side.
Opened 18 October, 2007
Jean Genet's 1959 play, partly inspired by the independence of Ghana
(the first country in black Africa to emerge from colonialism), is an
indictment of centuries of white oppression and exploitation which uses
every shock tactic available. A group of black people re-enact the
murder of a white woman before a tribunal of dignitaries, played by
black actors in whiteface. Other black actors put boot-polish on their
faces. Contempt and hostility rain from all parties on to all others.
And yet Genet's position was not one of revanchism; rather, he was
trying to startle (and, in the case of white people, shame) us out of
crippling polarised attitudes into thought and consideration.
The play was written with an almost entirely white audience in mind.
Put it in front of a predominantly black house in the most ethnically
diverse borough in Britain, give it a contemporary brush-up, and you
have something as complex and unpredictable as the author could have
hoped. No antagonistic remark can be taken at face value: it may be
uttered by a white character played by a black actor, or by a black
character but written by a white author.
Directors Ultz and Excalibah have turned sections of the play into rap
and grime numbers; Excalibah orchestrates events onstage by means of
his decks. The gifted comedian Tameka Empson, behind pale pancake as
the Queen, treads a fine line by going for humour without letting us
off the hook with easy laughter; at one point the Queen has a lengthy,
detailed and quite unscripted "Well, what would you do if you were in
charge?" exchange with a spectator.
This production coincides with Ghana's golden jubilee, the bicentenary
of the abolition of the British slave trade, and Black History Month...
"or as we call it," remarked one black arts manager to me recently,
"Black Employment Month." Its aesthetic is rough, its staging is often
coarse (I heard one punter on the way out call it "panto"), it is not
in any way comfortable viewing. That's why it works so well.
Written for the Financial
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights
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