'The Blacks': Genet's contentious play returns

A daring new production of Jean Genet's 'The Blacks' shows the 48-year-old play still has the power to shock
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"Anarchic, provocative, outrageous" is the billing for Theatre Royal Stratford East's production of Jean Genet's The Blacks. Since its contentious premiere in 1959, Genet's play has rarely been performed outside France, although it did enjoy a three-year run in the Sixties, becoming the longest running non-musical off-Broadway.

Using the framework of a play within a play, it exposes racial prejudice and stereotypes while exploring black identity. As a troupe of black actors re-enact the trial and ensuing murder of a white woman before a kangaroo court, the Queen and her entourage look on and comment. Five of the 13 black actors white up to play the establishment figures. The Queen (a whited-up woman) comes to a Command Performance, but the proceedings are far removed from any Royal Variety Show.

The timing of this new production could not be more relevant – 2007 marks 200 years since the abolition of slavery in the UK and it is also the 50th anniversary of Ghana gaining independence, the first black African country to break free from imperial rule and the inspiration behind Genet's play.

In the new translation by Robert David Macdonald with directors Excalibah and Ultz who last produced Da Boyz, a hip-hop version of Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors, The Blacks "remixed" adds a modern twist, re-interpreting the play using slam poetry and hip-hop music. Excalibah, 26, a composer, musical director and former BBC 1Xtra broadcaster, whose theatrical career began at Stratford East's youth theatre, admits that his first thoughts on reading the play were "this is going to be a bit of a toughy".

"At first I was a bit shocked that an old French white guy could speak so prolifically about the issues of black race," Excalibah recalls. "I wasn't sure how he was justified in speaking about it, but once I'd looked into his past I realised he was justified in pushing for the underdog."

The French playwright and novelist associated with Theatre of the Absurd, Genet had a controversial background. He himself was an outsider, a homosexual who started his life as a petty thief, was imprisoned, and corroborated his image as an outlaw until he befriended Jean Cocteau, who admired his writing. Genet once said: "I recognise in thieves, traitors and murderers, in the ruthless and the cunning, a deep beauty – a sunken beauty."

The directors' decision to convert chunks of Genet's original prose into rap lyrics is an attempt to modernise the play and make it more accessible to an audience that the company hope will include young people.

"One of the problems with the play is if you're performing it as written in English, it comes across as quite stilted. By putting it in the style of big poems and putting it to hip-hop music, it allows it to stand up and have a voice in a contemporary style," Excalibah explains.

While the style has been changed, all of Genet's original themes and ideas and the imagery have been retained in this production. The directors set about securing a "combination of marrying the ideas and images that Genet had with a modern black consciousness," says Excalibah. "It is a play fuelled by anger about what whites did in Africa over 400 years. For me, being a musician and knowing hip-hop has a big angry thrust to it and now grime, it's about marrying it. They go together quite well."

Although the whiting-up, as stipulated in Genet's stage directions, is only a minor part of the play's controversy, it does come as a shock for the spectator. For one of the actors, Carl Ramsey, who forgot to remove the white, before picking up his children, recalls how he managed to "freak out" his son.

"I still think there's something about colour", he says. Playing the Judge, Ramsey, who was also taken on as lyrical adviser, describes how he whites up, decks tights, britches, and coat of a judge and stands up feeling hugely "powerful" and respected in his new regalia.

"It can completely transform how people receive you", he says. "Where else would a young black man of 30 put on a judge's costume? These are the people who put a lot of guys that look like me behind bars," he says. "All it does is flag up questions about how you view yourself in the context of black and white. It makes you question the whole dynamic of race."

There is much humour in the play – vivacious actress-cum-comedian Tameka Empson who stars in the television comedy Three Non Blondes and who was nominated for an Olivier award for her role in the Big Life – plays the Queen. "Tameka is playing the Queen so there's no way it wouldn't be funny. The Queen ends up on stage thinking she's ended up in safari in Africa!" says Excalibah.

In one scene, Empson as the Queen converses with characters holding mics as they perform hip-hop lyrics. And there are some similarities drawn between the blunders of the play's Governor General – the first character to speak onstage – and Prince Philip.

However, the directors took out Genet's original subtitle for the play – "A Clown Show" – to avoid trivialising the subject matter.

Stratford is in the London borough of Newham, which proportionately has Britain's highest non-white population. And the stereotypes do still exist today. The arts – especially the theatre – are still considered to be a very white middle-class hobby.

In Britain's most multi-cultural and ethnically diverse city, London, of the top 10 cultural attractions, none have directors from ethnic minorities, while a smaller proportion of Britain's non-white population visit cultural institutions (for example during the past year just 5 per cent of the Tate Modern's visitors were from black or ethnic minorities).

Excalibah points out that of the vast cast for Lord of The Rings, the largest cast playing at the moment, not one of the actors is black. " The only plays about black issues are put on in October – and that's just in London. Once you leave the city there are no black productions."

"The fact is, within the law, the military, in the royal family, you have these clichés and stereotypes. It throws the ideas out there. It's amazing for me that a play written in 1958 can be relevant today, and upsetting to me that it's more relevant today."

To 10 November, Theatre Royal Stratford East, London E15 (020-8534 0310)