Welcome to the world's most unusual talent contest. Behind the scenes, competitors are laughing and brawling, parading their hopes and fears in front of each other, their loves and losses. But there's a bigger fight to be had on stage: who's going to win? The black, the yellow or the brown guy?
Blackta premiered at the Young Vic this week (5 November 2012, previews from 26 October), and continues to 24 November.
Blackta… is a loud, angry discussion about the limitations imposed on black actors by a white establishment. These men are far from stereotypes… Howard Charles, Daniel Francis, Javone Prince and Anthony Welsh… respectively tackle this ensemble piece with humour and feeling. If it wasn't already clear from these characters' names that Blackta is to be understood as social commentary rather than character-driven drama, the play's staging underlines this point. Humiliating auditions, call backs and eventual rejections is played out on and symbolised by Jeremy Herbert's strikingly minimal set Herbert and Nicki Brown's lighting design… further complements the action. The trouble is that while this is certainly an issue faced by black actors, it's not one faced by black actors alone. By choosing not to address this reality, Blackta shuts down debate, rather than opening it up.
There is a wealth of top-rank black actors in mainstream theatre in Britain today. But it is still, as Nathaniel Martello-White’s furious play makes clear, tough to be a “Blackta.” It is an impressionistic, loosely narrative show in a clever, abstract Jeremy Herbert set. These are fine actors, most with Royal Shakespeare Company form, and David Lan’s direction keeps it moving. But their endless “street” hyper-masculinity has its problems: open homophobia, and a contemptuous and explicit rapacity about women. Fine if they were teenage hoodies, but we are supposed to believe they’ve all been through drama school. It doesn’t fit. But the resolution is interesting: Brown creates his own “T’ing” - maybe a screenplay - suggesting that part of the answer is to carve out your own space. This show at least tries to.
Nathaniel Martello-White has come up with Blackta. Evidently inspired by his experience in the black acting community, this is nevertheless a non-naturalistic piece set in an audition hall described as a “living hell.” We never see those who are responsible for choosing the winners and losers... success or failure is signalled by red or green lights. Martello-White is excellent at demotic street dialogue and joshing banter, as the actors veer between wired hope and the gloom of rejection. Nevertheless, despite its vitality, the play is also wearing. Two hours without an interval is too long and the dramatist could make his points in half that time. David Lan directs a production full of nervy intensity and wry humour, and there are fine performances from the cast, with especially fine work from Anthony Welsh... and Howard Charles.
Blackta has its origins in Nathaniel Martello-White’s frustration at the shortage of good parts for black actors. It’s a nightmare vision of the audition process, in which career opportunities seem to be like components of a crazy arcade game. The system is mechanical and brutal. The atmosphere is pugilistic and snarlingly macho. All the performances are strong, with Howard Charles suavely muscular as Yellow and Anthony Welsh tense yet elegant as the ambitious Brown. Daniel Francis’s Black combines menace with a droll insecurity, and Javone Prince contributes some of the funniest moments. Director David Lan has shaped a production that often fizzes. But, running two hours without an interval, it would have benefited from further editing. Though the writing is certainly sparky, it’s a touch repetitive. Questions of misogyny and homophobia briefly appear and quickly vanish. In short, Blackta is a play that bubbles with promise but doesn’t feel sufficiently lean.
Avant-garde director's theatre and gritty street-talking satire are pretty rare bedfellows. But David Lan's trippy production... works surprisingly well. Abstract as the presentation may be, Martello-White's salty, realist dialogue has the unmistakeable tang of truth to it. And the excellent ensemble are entirely credible as sensitive men with tough façades, each becoming increasingly frayed as he grinds his way through a system concerned only with token representation. Francis's Black is particularly good, a troubled, probably gay older man whose build and looks have left him trapped in an alpha male role both on and off screen. Lan's production sometimes conveys the sense of purgatorial void a little too well: there is plenty of detail but not much plot. But the unfairness of 'the thing' is spelled out powerfully in Martello-White's promising and original debut, which never has to preach to get its message across.
Martello-White is a terrific actor, and this debut play suggests he could be a fabulous playwright, too, although he needs a far sterner editor than he gets in director David Lan. The production doesn't quite find a way to marry successfully the banter of the actors with the surreal episodes in the audition room, a place of endless humiliations. The satire would be sharper and harder-hitting if the show was shorter and tighter. Nonetheless, there is plenty to enjoy in this superbly acted piece's exploration of black masculinity. The audition process is a metaphor for the experience of black men in a predominantly white world, where the urge to be chosen can lead to collusion and psychological turmoil. Most, like Leo Wringer's poignant Older Black, will wait patiently but never win the prize.
- Callum Brodie