Blackta, Young Vic, London
Monday 12 November 2012
Nathaniel Martello-White's stinging satire is inspired by frustration at the dearth of quality roles for black actors in this country. Premiered in a production by David Lan that pulsates with witty dynamism, the play takes a caustically absurdist approach to the subject.
A group of hopefuls, identified only by their skin colour (Brown, Black, Yellow, Dull Brown etc) compete with each other for “the ting” in a nightmare audition process of ritual humiliations and endless callbacks.
There is a surreal air of a mad slot-machine game to their Sisyphean trials. Barging in and out of the row of blank doors that form the bottom tier of Jeremy Herbert's darkly droll vision of limbo, they then head along a conveyor belt and up the stairs to a neon-rimmed cell where they take out symbolic tool boxes and unseen judges rate them on their skills at pointless, demeaning stunts.
These include escape-artistry from farcical self-imprisonment in duct tape, say, or scoffing an entire family-size cake, or, in Javone Prince's blissfully funny routine, piling on multiple layers of clothing to speeded-up fairground music. To add insult to injury, the verdict is signalled wordlessly through a red or green flashing light.
Each scene starts with the ringing of a bell as in the rounds of a boxing match and the atmosphere is joshingly pugilistic. The rivalry is, of course, not just with white actors (dismissed as “floppy-heads”) who get the breaks, but within this quartet of contestants, constantly up against each other for the rare prizes.
Crackling with the author's flair for producing street-wise demotic, edgy banter about “lip-reductions” and the need for straight noses etc bounces between Howard Charles's cynical Yellow who thinks he has the system sussed; Daniel Francis's possibly gay Black, an ageing mix of aggression and insecurity, trapped in a muscled macho stereotype; Javone Prince's pathetic fantasist; and Anthony Welsh's movingly intense Brown who resolves to control his own destiny by creating an alternative “ting”.
The Rada-trained author is himself a highly talented actor and clearly knows the score. True, the play is over-extended and I sometimes found myself wondering if young men who had been through drama school would still be as defensively homophobic, misogynistic, and seemingly unconcerned about their female counterparts as this lot. But, combining an acute ear for dialogue with a bold and eloquent visual concept, Blackta is a genuinely promising and original debut
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