"STOP!" SHRIEKS ADELAIDE Bobo, "You're too pale." Running to a shoeshine box which rests at the foot of a coffin, she grabs a disc of shoepolish and proceeds to darken the black actor's face. He stands patiently while the smirking Miss Bobo spits and polishes him to the proper hue. As ringmaster Archibald exhorts:
Let Negroes negrify themselves. Let them persist to the point of madness in what they're condemned to be, in their ebony, in their odor, in their yellow eyes, in their cannibal tastes ... Negroes, if they [whites] change towards us, let it not be out of indulgence, but terror.
Questions of terror and identity dominate the Loeb staging of The Blacks, written by playwright Jean Genet in 1958. Despite weak direction that at times reduces the complexity of Genet to a confused gray monotone, some unnerving answers do emerge in John Kirkwood's Black CAST production.
There is a stage within a stage. On a thrust platform a troupe of black actors perform their nightly ritual "murder" of a white woman; a white audience (actually black actors wearing grotesque white masks that in no way disguise their color) comments obnoxiously from their box seats set above and behind the action.
Master of Ceremonies Archibald Absalom Wellington, smooth as a dagger and just as menacing, introduces his sullen, smoke-eyed cast. Deodatus Village is a half-dressed epitome of black buckdom. The strumpet he struts for is whore-cum-ballet-dancer Stephanie Virtue Secret-rose Diop--"Virtue" for short, which neatly sums up the situation. The curate Diouf pleads for passive religious acceptance; Felicity Trollop Pardon shrieks "Dahomey!" and "Africa!" with an epileptic frenzy; Augusta Snow says little and wears anger like a nimbus round her pout-mouthed head. Genet further burlesque's white perceptions of black names by dubbing the mysterious revolutionary "Newport News." Adelaide Bobo assists emcee-director Archibald and they begin to organize the evening's performance.
The "white" court sits in pompous assurance. An elegant queen, her simpering valet, a Missionary, a Judge, a Governor--the outlandishing-garbed whites are not only obvious symbols of white culture but obscene caricatures of the values each represents.
Confusion replaces illusion as we discover that there is in fact no white corpse in the flower-bedecked coffin. The actors deliberately offend the court, speaking of urine and filth and foul carrion odors. The Governor soon sputters "we've come to attend our own funeral rites." Throughout all this, something ominously unknown is transpiring offstage: Newport News enters and exists, relaying puzzling messages to the court and cast.
LIKE HOLLOW WOODEN DOLLS that fit neatly inside one another, there are four worlds in The Blacks, each of which builds to its own frightening realization. There is the world of their stage; an uninvolved white court watches Village reenact the rape and murder of a white woman, played rather reluctantly by a blond-bewigged Diouf. On our stage, the black-black-actors judge and condemn the white-black-actors and march them into hell. In the world of the theatre as a whole, we the predominantly white audience begin to perceive the actors as a unified group manipulating us with savage skill. And then there is the reality beyond the theatre, whose messenger is Newport News. During the evening's performance, somewhere on "the outside," a black traitor has been executed and a new crusader chosen to take his place. The entire play has been nothing but an intricate diversion that distracts our attention while blacks organize our overthrow elsewhere.
If the nature of the characters and the trappings of their violence seem impossibly cliched, this is just what Genet intended. As Archibald explains:
By stretching language we'll distort it sufficiently to wrap ourselves in it and hide... As we could not allow the Whites to be present at a deliberation nor show them a drama that does not concern them, and as, in order to cover up, we have had to fabricate the only one that does concern them... We are what they want us to be.
One critic dubbed The Blacks "A white man's idea of Negroes' ideas of white ideas of Negroes." The enormous complexity of action and meaning renders Genet's play almost impossible to stage effectively, and even harder to comprehend at one sitting. Diverse audience interpretation stands as a testament not so much to the broad range of Genet's material as to its failure as pure theater. The current word on this literary-intellectual exercise maintains that The Blacks concerns not so much racial schism as the general violence and absurdity of the modern world. This theory nicely dilutes Genet's paranoid tension and allows the white audience to sit back comfortably, philosophizing about French absurdist theatre and Saint Sordid Genet.
THE BLACKS is elusive; it demands ironclad direction. While director John Kirkwood is good at smaller-scale direction--the short scenes, the more straightforward monologues, and the blocking--he fails to mold the play into a coherent whole. At times characters portray themselves, at other times they take on a variety of roles--these crucial transitions are too often undelineated. The court speeches (the easiest and most comic roles) are inexcusably weak. Claude Sloan, David Brain Wilkins, and Don Gillespie (as the Missionary, the Judge, and the Governor) merge into one spewing monotone; the Queen should be a mannered foil to Virtue, but L. Maxine Freeman lacks the necessary elegant pretension. Paul Brasuell shines as her valet, simpering and swaying his way to the brightest moments of the show.
Each member of the troupe of black actors, bereft of the necessary direction, compensates by latching onto one emotion that he is confident he can do well. Silvia Anglin (Felicity) clings to her range, Corliss Blount (Snow) to her bitterness. Felipe Noguera turns in a good performance as Archibald, staring at members of the audience with a fierce, chilling concentration. Rod Clark renders a marvelously subtle Diouf; his mask segments are precise and perfect. Michael Russell (Village) deals well with the most difficult part in the play; his character is almost totally reliant on feedback from others and the quality of his performance varies predictably depending on whom he is speaking to at the moment. Andrea Shockley (Virtue) is magnetic through the bulk of the evening but weakens the final scene with empty coquettery; her sultry beauty is insufficient explanation for Village's tortured affection. Marc Johnson (Newport News) seems to enunciate least just when his messages matter most. Lisa V. Harris as Bobo pouts and gestures in such a hollow mixture of accents and characters that her performance runs from uncomfortably empty to painfully mannered.
The technical production staged by producers Denise Moorehead and Mercedes Laing is magnificent. Glenn Berenbeim's set is amazingly versatile and visually amazing. At times the tech is too much stronger than the acting it supports; the moving platform upstages the court as much as their ornate boxes dwarf them. The costumes, designed by Berenbeim and executed by Lynn Rodriguez, are beautifully distinct and salvage a few scenes; without the gaudy accoutrements of their offices, the court characters would be a homogenous disaster. The tech as a whole bypasses the usual primitive motifs seen in The Blacks and opts instead for the decadent absurdity of modern western taste. Ying Wu's lighting should have been considerably bolder in order to emphasize the unreal theatricality of the setting.
IN THE FINAL scene, Archibald thanks his troupe for their successful deception of the white audience:
You've displayed a great deal of courage, but you had to. The time has not yet come for presenting dramas about noble matters... Put on your masks again.
"Noble matters" seems to mean anything that refuses to embrace black stereotype. Black CAST displayed "a great deal of courage" in choosing to stage a play whose very nature in a sense doomed it as theater; in Genet's The Blacks, "noble" intent qualifies a less than magnificent performance.