First-time playwright Nathaniel Martello-White is best known as a fine actor. He is of mixed race heritage. “Blackta” denotes “a bloody good black actor”. But in a white-dominated profession, prejudice against brown skin hinders advancement; the darker the shade, the worse the prejudice. A “blackta” might get to play the friend of “the main white character”, says Martello-White, but will never be “the centre of the story.”
Ordinary names are dispensed with. There is Black, Older Black, Younger Black, Dull Brown, Brown and Yellow. If the white establishment views black people in sub-human terms, Martello-White does not. He has written detailed human parts with authentic, poetic voices, rooted in London. All want to be the next big “ting”.
Reality is heightened. Characters are not actors per se, but hopefuls in some nightmarish talent contest. The stage is divided between an audition zone and a waiting area. Auditionees skip, eat cake, inflate a rubber glove – anything, it would seem, always pointless and degrading. Judgement is passed by a hidden “ting”, representing the white establishment. Lucky contestants receive a green light. Green and you can leave; no green and no escape. The game is “rigged” and skin colour is central to success.
If the soap-box satire is overdone, the points are pertinent. At its best, Blackta examines what it means to be a black male in modern Britain.
“They took your masculinity from you years ago,” says Black to Brown. “Hence why so many of us are mad bent on walking around like cavemen – angry cavemen.” These men are macho – homophobic, misogynistic, tough. Yet not. Gym-work is done to please the “ting”; sex is boasted about, but women are absent; and the hunter of old – “ripped, cut, the pure epitome of masculinity” – is palpably extinct.
David Lan’s production is edgy and unflinching. A sensitive balance is struck between comedy and despair. Javone Prince stands out as Dull Brown (poignant, hilarious) and the cast is uniformly strong.
There are parallels with John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger: both plays deal with men who feel marginalised by society and both are inspired by rejection. But, while Osborne’s play is essentially bitter, Blackta offers hope. More than anything, Brown wants control of his destiny – to make his “own ting”. Martello-White, the actor-turned-playwright, has done just that – and with success.