Brown is up for an acting job. It's not a great job, judging from what he's asked to do in the audition, but work's work. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on the way you look at it), he's not alone in his plight. Up for all the same jobs – the same old roles that black actors ever seem to be offered – are his friends Black, Dull Brown and Yellow.
Life, this play by Nathaniel Martello-White tells us, is not easy for a 'blackta'. And the writer should know, having had plenty of acting experience himself, including starring in the Young Vic's extraordinary production of The Brothers Size in 2007, another play written by a young black actor-turned-playwright about an aspect of the black experience.
Blackta is not a careful exploration of the issue of race in contemporary drama. Rather, it is a loud, angry discussion about the limitations imposed on black actors by a white establishment. But that's not to say there's no subtlety to be found.
Martello-White's characters may not be in possession of proper names or back stories, but these men are far from stereotypes and Howard Charles, Daniel Francis, Javone Prince and Anthony Welsh as Yellow, Black, Dull Brown and Brown 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. An endless cycle of humiliating auditions, call backs and eventual rejections is played out on and symbolised by Jeremy Herbert's strikingly minimal set of swinging doors, conveyor belt and black box casting room. Herbert and Nicki Brown's lighting design – at times lurid, at times stark – further complements the action.
Always present in this production is the dreadful conflict between staying true to yourself and giving other people what they want. The trouble is that while this is certainly an issue faced by black actors, it's not one faced by black actors alone. Martello's characters, Black in particular, believe that white actors – "floppy heads" in the parlance of the play – have it easy, and while it’s certainly true that there are more parts written for white actors than for black actors, acting is not a smooth road for anyone. By choosing not to address this reality, Blackta shuts down debate, rather than opening it up.
David Lan's production fizzes with energy, including some explosive movement direction by Joseph Alford, but like the play itself, there's not enough focus for this promising work to really achieve its potential.