THE BLACKS at Karamu House review (Cleveland) — The Blacks-Karamu — AAPEX

Friday, May 2, 2008

THE BLACKS at Karamu House review (Cleveland)

Karamu's THE BLACKS is an artistic triumph!

Reviewed by: Fran Heller, Cleveland Jewish News

It was like nothing I had ever seen before.

I am talking about The Blacks: a clown show, Jean Genet's 1958 absurdist comedy-drama which took off-Broadway by storm in 1961. A story about race and a fierce indictment of classism and white oppression of blacks, it struck a nerve in the turbulent era of nascent Black Nationalism and civil rights.

Fast forward to Karamu Performing Arts Theatre, where almost five decades later, a new production of The Blacks has lost none of its sting or sardonic humor under the fiercely intelligent and creative direction of Terrence Spivey. It runs through May 10.

It is a tribute to artistic director Spivey that his all-black cast of 13 non-Equity actors have not only met but surpassed the challenge of putting on this fiendishly difficult and demanding show. This ensemble acts its heart out and is a pleasure to watch.

In his preface to the play, Genet wrote: "One evening an actor asked me to write a play for an all-black cast. But what exactly is a black? First of all, what's his color?" For Genet -- and a key to understanding his play-- any notion of color is absurd or meaningless.

Written as a play-within- a-play-within- a-play, the theater piece is a surreal mix of allegory, fantasy, symbolism and fragmented language and, like expressionism, more felt than fully understood. A running time of three hours, including intermission, requires some tenacity.

The bawdy in-your-face dramedy lampoons stereotypical attitudes on both sides of the color divide, namely the sexual attraction between whites and blacks. It takes us into the very heart of darkness, which is Africa, where colonialism, racism and hatred all began.

John Konopka's fabulous set is a cross between a funeral parlor and a courtroom, with audience members situated on both sides of a thrust stage, like a jury. In the center is a catafalque, or coffin-like structure, covered with a white cloth and a bouquet of lilies.

First to enter are the members of the Court. They are the whites (black actors wearing white masks), their smug superiority evident in their courtly airs and arrogant behavior. Next to arrive are the rowdy Negroes, who will re-enact for the Court the ritualistic murder of a white woman, of which they have been accused.

Bathed in Richard H. Morris Jr.'s fiery red glow, the Negroes file in like prisoners on a chain gang. It's a stunning tableau, the first of many that make this production unique.

Harold Crawford's sensational costumes and masks are a riveting study in black and white. Nothing has been spared in his rapturous designs, from the Queen's snow-white wedding gown and cascading mop of blonde curls to the prostitute's black bodice and the ringmaster's tux.

The intimate setting of the Arena theater, the smaller of Karamu's two performance spaces, is ideal for the kangaroo court setting in which the whites are situated on a platform above the stage, with the blacks placed below. The Negroes interact with audience members, pulling them into the entertainment.

The cast, individually and as an ensemble, reflects the discipline and hard work such physical theater requires. Jason Dixon is outstanding as the malevolent leader of the Negroes, Archibald Absalom Wellington. With his face painted like a clown and his manic grin a cross between a sneer and a smile, Dixon summons an image of the decadent master of ceremonies in "Cabaret."

Joseph Primes is equally memorable as the hotheaded Village, who loves the prostitute Virtue (the fetchingly seductive Andrea Belser). Neal Hodges impersonates a man of the cloth called Diouf, whose turn it is to play the white woman about to be raped and murdered.

The rest of the Negroes (fine performances all) include Michael R. Brown Jr, Janelle K. Tate, Erin Neal, and Saidah Mitchell as Felicity Trollop Pardon, an African prophetess who augurs an idyllic future when "everything gentle and kind and beautiful and tender will be black."

Members of the Court are Vernon-Reed Bulluck as the lascivious Governor, Jason Walker as the hypocritical Missionary, Dwayne Owens as the prejudicial Judge, Doug Pratt as a whining Valet, and Morris Cammon as the vulgar Queen who knits a pearly white sweater or strokes her snow-white dog when she isn't snoring.

In a production in which pantomime and movement play a key role, director Spivey's rampant imagination and inspired choreography are boundless. Though long and disorienting (as much a function of the play as written), the circus-like atmosphere keeps one's attention from flagging.

Genet wrote The Blacks as an indictment of French colonialism in Africa. But the parallels with the African-American experience, including slavery, racism, class prejudice, and a biased judicial system are unmistakably clear. While the historic injustices Genet rails against have been addressed in part, his play is a reminder that the color of one's skin is still very much a divisive issue.

Karamu Performing Arts Theatre is at 2355 East 89th St., Cleveland. 216-795-7077 or

1 comment:

  1. The show was a blast to perform, also it was the most challenging production I have been in.