The Fringe: Taking a one-night stand

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Arriving in London, the black American actor Harold Finley was struck by the low profile of black gay arts in the city. His response was to launch a festival to redress the situation. 'If you're black and you're gay, you're doubly invisible,' Finley says. 'It's very difficult for black gay men. You find not only society in general, but also gay society and black people not acknowledging you.'

Black, Queer and Fierce] (organised by Finley and the writer Oscar Watson) is a three-week celebration at the Lilian Baylis Theatre, featuring discussions, readings, cabaret and drama. 'We wanted to show that we have contributions to make to the arts,' Finley says. 'Audiences are seeing images of themselves or people they know that they don't often see on stage.'

Watson's Battieman Blues, one of the two plays at the centre of the festival, tackles head-on the problems faced by young black gays ('Battieman' is a derogatory term for homosexual used in the Caribbean). Through a one-night stand between two young men - Lloyd, a delicate fashion photographer, and Paul, a beefsteak in leather - Watson raises a host of issues about identity and prejudice. 'Come the revolution, when they line up the gays against one wall and the blacks against another, I won't know where to stand,' Lloyd says wryly, at one point. He is joking, but both men face problems reconciling feelings with pressures to conform to their milieu.

Watson makes you care about the characters while writing wittily; the main drawback with his play is length - it not only portrays a night of personal confessions but emulates one, going round in circles, until by the end you feel as if you too have sat up till 4am talking a relationship into the ground. This dulls the impact of an otherwise revealing, touching play.

Conforming has never been the strong point of China Dish, the arch drag queen created by Bette Bourne in The Dish (Drill Hall, London WC2). In Paul Hallam's monologue, laced with musical numbers, China takes us on a rambling memory trip from his childhood in a large East End family ('We were always in a queue'), through a colourful youth (as it were), to a lonely middle-age running a hotel in Bournemouth.

Bette Bourne fleshes out this sumptuous, faded character delightfully, neatly negotiating the coy one-liners and corny double entendres that litter the text. The performance lingers on the slow side, so languorous that you sometimes hold your breath lest he nod off before the next line - but it is so skilfully pitched as to be consistently funny, yet surprisingly moving. This is a Dish who has lost all his old chinas to Aids, but Hallam and Bourne deal with this subtly: the text simply touches on it, while Bourne gives the character a bravura that suggests suppressed pain.

The crude and the delicate combine unexpectedly too in Malcolm Campbell's Three Japanese Women (Cockpit, London NW8), in which three prostitutes bury their shattered lives in the dark recesses of a small brothel. All three have survived the Hiroshima bomb, but with scarred faces and spirits. The brittle Izumi (Jacqui Chan) dulls her pain with whisky and stories of former lovers; the highly- strung Keiko (Pamella Bijou-Yang) pins everything on escape to America with her fly-by-night pimp; the patient Teishi (Swee-Lin) hangs on to traditional values and memories of her fiance, killed by the bomb.

Campbell deals with the enormous difficulties of restructuring shattered lives and with the conflicting and insufficient values offered to the women in a society on the turn. His play is perceptive and atmospheric, thoughtfully directed by Glen Goei and subtly lit. But it is weighed down by some studiously poetic lines and by the limited dramatic development offered by the situation. It's quite clear from the outset that the three women will be unable to leave. This gives the play a frustratingly static feel that the cast work overtime to overcome, but that never quite transmutes into the Chekhovian suspension that Campbell seems to strive for.

'Black, Queer and Fierce]' to 13 Nov (071-837 4104); 'The Dish' to 27 Nov (071-637 8270); 'Three Japanese Women' to 27 Nov (071-402 5081)

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