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Close Encounters: My Blacks Story
By Una Chaudhuri

The Blacks
By Jean Genet
East 13th Street Theatre

136 East 13th Street (at Third Avenue)
Mar. 11th - Apr. 6th, 2003
Ticktets: (212) 206-1515

On the night I saw The Blacks, fifteen minutes into the performance two spectators grabbed up their coats and purses and rushed out of the theatre. Okay: they were white. Okay: they were women. Ten minutes later, two others (Okay, okay: whites, women) got up and began to move towards the exit. This time a couple of the cast members confronted them, asked them if they were leaving. “Yes,” they said, loudly enough that all the rest of us could hear: “This is very upsetting to us.” They rushed out. We heard later that one of them was sobbing as she ran through the lobby and out into the night.

“Upsetting” would be one way to put it. Another way would be to note that this production of Jean Genet’s great play by The Classical Theatre of Harlem forces its audience to think in terms of race and color. Or rather, it forces them to recognize how much those categories remain a factor in social perceptions, no matter how much everyone might hope otherwise. It insists we drop the comfortable pretence of color-blindness that characterizes middle-class life in America today, and admit that we do notice color (and gender), all the time, and that this “noticing” has vastly different implications for and impacts on different groups.

But the real accomplishment of this production is not in whatever salutary political insights it may foster. Rather it is in the way it reenlists the theatre—I mean, the entire theatrical “apparatus,” as Brecht called it—in cultural politics. It deploys the elements of performance—gestures, stillness, sounds, silence, gazes, distance, proximities—in such a way as to make of the theatre a vivid habitation, a place in which you can’t help knowing and being yourself. That’s more than upsetting. It’s terrifying. At first you want to run out. Maybe you do run out. But if you stay, you experience something unusually specific. Talk to anyone who’s seen the play and they’ll start telling you stories about specific things that happened on the night they saw it. One friend told me how an audience member (Okay, white) had tried to flummox an aggressive performer (Okay, black) during the pre-show by speaking to her in Spanish. The actor replied in Spanish, didn’t miss a beat. Another friend (Okay, white) told me how an actor took her cell-phone off her, star-six-nined her last caller and berated him at length, to the astonished delight of the audience.

The “site-specificity” achieved by this production makes the theatre a social laboratory, a place of discovery, perhaps even revelation. It forces you to notice the myriad details of behavior and appearance of those in the space with you: Who are they? How are they reacting to all this? What have they lived through in their lives that these actors are now reminding them of? How will they—the spectators, the actors—end up feeling about race at the end of this play? How will this little boy (Okay, black) sitting next to me be affected by this as he grows up, how will it shape his view of whites? Will the fact that he is so affectionately greeted by the cast offset his exposure to such a heightened, almost mythic enactment of racial conflict? How do I feel about being regarded simply as “non-white?” (“Are you white?” an actor asks me during the pre-show. When I say no, she moves on to my friends (Okay, they’re white) and gives them white roses while performing a grotesque parody of subservience. How do I feel about not being included in the multi-culti version of Blackness that a part of the audience gets to perform toward the end of the play? (Okay, I know how I feel: like I did during the O.J. thing, when every poll reported the opinions of blacks and whites, leaving the rest of us feeling liked chopped liver). The inner monologue that begins during the show goes on long after I leave the theatre.

It is the first and fundamental triumph of this production to liberate the play from the political abstraction in which Genet’s ritualistic theatricality and extravagant poetry have tended to encase it. Genet’s daring meditation on the poetics of racial hatred is transformed, here, into a courageous encounter with the social nuts and bolts of the machine of racism, which runs as efficiently today as it did half a century ago when Genet wrote the play for an amateur company of black actors. Dispiriting—even maddening—as such persistence is, there is a measure of progress in discovering, as this production does, that we are now ready for a theatrical mimesis that might work to inoculate us against the Manichean logic of “black or white,” “us and them” that fuels that machine. Confronting that logic by rigorously embodying it, not only within the play but also within the theatre, The Blacks promises a disruption of its power.

Just such a disruption always lay beneath Genet’s art of transfiguring transgressions and sacred profanities. But this production takes Genet’s paradoxes and locates them not only, as he did, on a richly rhetorical and ritualistic stage, but also within a firmly situated and painfully localized space, the specific place and time of the performance. While fully realizing the baroque spectacle implied in Genet’s text, this production makes that spectacle secondary to its interaction with the audience. Thus Ann Lommel’s gorgeous circus set and Kimberly Glennon’s stunning costumes, both in an uncompromising palette of black and white, are deeply expressive without in any way reducing—by aestheticizing—the tension and, at times, even anguish, of the moment-to-moment encounter between the cast and the spectators.

The Blacks makes the most effective use of environmental staging that I have seen in a long time, reinvigorating and re-politicizing it after years of trivialization (think The Donkey Show). Abandoning the proscenium staging implied in Genet’s text, it creates an immersive environment of the kind that Artaud had envisioned, with actors moving about on ramps that run between and around the spectators, who are seated on swivel chairs. The change has enormous implications for the political meaning and effect of the play. The staging envisioned in Genet’s text placed the two distinct groups in the action—the “white” court and the black performers—on two levels of a single stage, framed together within the spectator’s visual field. Located in this way, the two groups constituted a constant structural reminder of the intractable racial opposition and mystified social hierarchy that is the play’s subject. The authoritative irony of that static staging positioned the audience as passive voyeurs of the spectacles of racism and colonialism. That passivity is vigorously contested in this production by a constantly shifting dynamic that results from the complex spatial arrangement of the set. That dynamic inscribes itself on the spectators’ bodies—craning our necks, swiveling our chairs, moving to let actors pass among us—as much as it does on their emotions and imaginations.

Terrifying (or “upsetting”) as this encounter is, its literalness and physicality make it also deeply rewarding. The real credit for that unexpected outcome, rests, of course, not with the physical staging but with the hugely talented cast, who are as successful in unleashing the power of Genet’s poetry as they are generous and courageous in how they lead the audience through such politically and emotionally fraught territory. To discuss only a few of the performances is inevitably to slight the dazzling ensemble work of such a large cast. Yet a performance like the one by Ty Jones as Archibald cannot go unacknowledged. The energy and wit he brings to the role of Genet’s supremely ironic master of ceremonies is admirable but not unusual: what is absolutely astonishing is his ability to combine political confrontation with emotional warmth, threat with playfulness, daunting challenge with thrilling invitation.

All of which is to say, finally, that this is an instance of virtuoso directing. Christopher McElroen, co-founder and Executive Director of the Classical Theatre of Harlem, brings great imagination and precision to this smart updating of Genet’s intricate exploration of racial performativity. In moving from Genet’s ceremonial formality to an in-your-face environmentalism, the production implicitly acknowledges both how much has changed and how much has not changed in the years since the play was written (1958) and, perhaps more to the point, since it had its American premiere in 1961. That legendary production ran for over three years off-Broadway and launched the careers of such actors as Maya Angelou, Roscoe Lee Browne, Lou Gossett Jr., James Earl Jones, and Cicely Tyson. This one, emerging in a radically different cultural climate—post-civil rights, post-modern, post-political?—has managed to extend its run and has moved downtown, but is unlikely to gain the large audiences and long run that it deserves. Especially now, as war increasingly shoves all legitimate human concerns off the national agenda, the “poetics” of American racism are unlikely to get much attention. The Manicheanism that Genet warned of, the virulent dualism that this production explores, is center stage again: good versus evil, us or them, do or die. To respond to the horrors of that logic, one could do worse than go down to 13th Street and join in its theatrical deconstruction.