The Blacks was written by a leading French radical just as Europe was finally letting go of its colonies. In the US, it was the longest running off-Broadway show of the 1960s (over 1,400 performances). And in the original New York cast were James Earl Jones, Roscoe Lee Brown, Cicely Tyson, Godfrey Cambridge and Maya Angelou.
It’s still a powerful piece of theatre, written for black actors to perform before a white audience. It assaults sensibilities to shatter stereotyped thinking — and feeling — about race.
Alas, it’s still needed. The audience I sat in was as diverse as modern LA, and shouted support — far from the silent shock that greeted the play 50 years ago. But at the curtain call, the company dedicated their work to nine black Americans slain two days earlier by a white terrorist.
In The Blacks, a commedia-like troupe prepares to try a black man for murdering a white woman, while colonial authorities — a queen, a governor and a missionary — sit in judgment. Parodying the racist minstrel shows of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, one member acts as emcee, guiding the audience and the other actors (and often arguing with them like an irascible director).
Between the actors’ squabbles and the authorities’ squeamishness, the trial never successfully proceeds. (Offstage, an unseen trial — not a staged enactment — moves right along, ending with the black defendant’s execution). Onstage, things collapse and the actors end up killing the colonials, including the queen.
The Orig-O-naL Theatre Company, a CalArts fledgling, brings plenty of energy and wit to Genet’s script, enthusiastically breaking theatrical and social conventions. The simple (uncredited) stage design keeps the focus on the characters, and the (uncredited) costumes identify without distracting (an inventive re-thinking of “whiteface” for the colonials is especially adroit).
As Archibald, the interlocutor, Arielle Siler fills the space of two or three people vocally and physically, with clear forceful speaking and dancer-like forms and gestures. She also projects an eager anxiety more winning than the usual emcee’s insouciance.
A’raelle Flynn Bolden deploys similar power, easily seizing the stage even amidst chaos with her powerful voice and presence to invoke the sacred name of Dahomey. Precious Ra’Akbar’s Snow is the most refractory actor, yet she emerges as a character rather than a caricature. Gyasi Silas is strong, clear and accessible as the torn Village, half Romeo and half revolutionary slayer. And Donna Simone Johnson creates the Queen as a dignified fool, with a Wonderland mix of blithe selfishness and astonishing vacuity.
The cast struggles a bit in the early going with the space’s rattling acoustics, perhaps aggravated by eager rushing. But they settle into enacting their story with clarity and bravado.
This is a very timely and effective renewal of a play we may, unfortunately, need for 50 more years. Kudos to Orig-O-naL for putting it into our conversation. Their production deserves a life beyond the Fringe.
The Blacks: A Clown Show, by Jean Genet, directed by Craig Gibson.
Presented by the Orig-O-naL Theatre Company, at the Other Space of the Actors Company, 916A Formosa Ave.