With characters named after their skin tone and a set that looks like the brown section of a Pantone chart, it does not take long to grasp the politics behind Blackta.
Nathaniel Martello-White’s show, which takes its name from a shortening of black actor, creates a hellish world for its different shades of performer, a contest where, despite seemingly being friends, everyone is looking to get ahead of each other, escaping from the purgatory of the casting conveyor belt.
It’s a fortuitously timely piece of programming. With stories about blacking up in German theatre and the history of Ira Aldridge hitting the news, the role of race in the entertainment industry is again being discussed (you can read our interview with Red Velvet’s Adrian Lester, which touches on the subject, here). Martello-White, himself best known as an actor, dives head first into the nitty gritty of almost every political argument that surrounds the life of a black male performer.
Skin tone, body shape, the inability of black men to wear skinny jeans, historical prejudices, current prejudices, in-fighting, ageism, working the system, rebuilding the system; they’re all drawn into two hours of theatre that manages to tackle these serious subjects without feeling overly preachy.
Maybe that’s because the complainants aren’t, if you’ll pardon the phrase, whiter than white. Javone Prince’s sad clown of the piece, Dull Brown, clings on to a dream that will never be realised. Daniel Francis’ angry Black tries to undermine those around him and Anthony Welsh’s Brown pulsates with a fervour for breaking the system that finds them all performing ridiculous tasks for an unseen panel. While their plight demands sympathy and understanding, their own opinions – towards women, for example – are also flawed and bigoted, making them more than just Caucasian-bashing cardboard cut outs.
As a “floppy head”, as the characters would no doubt call me, it feels a little uncomfortable being named the evil party in many of their arguments, but you can’t help wondering how many excruciating auditions and unfruitful meetings Martello-White endured before, like Brown, he was pushed to create something for himself, something vitriolic, eye-opening, intelligent, witty and, if the knowing laughter from the first night audience packed with black actors is anything to go by, truthful.
Oh, and something that contains a dream sequence light sabre fight. I wonder if that’s based on experience too?