Sunday, June 21, 2015

The Blacks: A Clown Show (review)

Spoilers ahoy!

Jean Genet's The Blacks: A Clown Show emerged onto the stage the same year I was born. For a time it was the longest-running non-musical on Broadway. As it begins, one might wonder why? After all, it seems a very odd thing indeed. At first. Very much like a stage performance one might come across in a dream. Therein lies a great deal of its power.

Because trying to "figure it out" soon becomes a lost cause. Who are these people? A troupe of black actors who seem to simultaneously reject and exult in the way white culture has sought to define them. They pander to the four officials who make up their onstage audience, while subtly mocking and threatening them. In fact the players themselves seem to be trying to work out their own feelings, their hopes in the face of a situation doing its best to turn them into just...things.

Tiny revelations build on tiny revelations, made vivid by the skill of the entire cast in terms of not only their individual scenes and vignettes but how they listen. They listen fascinated, enraged, puzzled, suspicious, hopeful and calculating. Violence seems in the air, not least as they describe and then re-enact the murder of a young white woman by a black man. They lack a white woman of course so one of their company undergoes a ritual to enter that "other world' for the play.

Meanwhile, the royals come across as buffoons a la characters in Alice in Wonderland, but more dangerous. Yet increasingly impotent. They come to see the power they once wielded with such arrogant abandon  evaporating in their grasp. As with their victims, despair descends. But without the rage which now seems to slowly drown them.

I cannot tell you ultimately the plot of The Orig-O-naL Theater Company's premiere production. Or, maybe I could, but that seems trivial. Rather I find myself wanting to savor the experience, to allow its seeds to grow within me, and acknowledge what the cast has wrought in my own soul. Because in the end this performance did what theater at its highest achieves--the story it depicted became not a story, but a life, and that life seemed my own.

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