For the majority of this audacious revival, the normally irrepressibly vocal Stratford East audience was entirely quiet. It was the sound of several hundred people trying to decide what to make of a show that goes through blatant confrontation and bursts out the other side.
Jean Genet’s 1959 play, partly inspired by the independence of Ghana (the first country in black Africa to emerge from colonialism), is an indictment of centuries of white oppression that uses every shock tactic available. A group of black people re-enact the murder of a white woman before a tribunal, played by black actors in whiteface. Other black actors put boot polish on their faces. Contempt and hostility rain from all parties. And yet Genet’s position was not one of revanchism; rather, he was trying to startle (and, in the case of white people, shame) us out of crippling polarised attitudes into thought and consideration.
The play was written with an almost entirely white audience in mind. Put it in front of a predominantly black house in the most ethnically diverse borough in Britain, give it a contemporary brush-up, and you have something as complex and unpredictable as the author could have hoped. No antagonistic remark can be taken at face value: it may be uttered by a white character played by a black actor, or by a black character but written by a white author.
Directors Ultz and Excalibah have turned sections of the play into rap and grime numbers; Excalibah orchestrates events onstage by means of his decks. The gifted comedian Tameka Empson, behind pale pancake as the Queen, treads a fine line by going for humour without letting us off the hook with easy laughter; at one point the Queen has a long and quite unscripted “well, what would you do if you were in charge?” exchange with a spectator.
This production coincides with Ghana’s golden jubilee, the bicentenary of the abolition of the British slave trade, and Black History Month – “or as we call it”, said one black arts manager to me recently, “Black Employment Month.” Its aesthetic is rough, its staging is often coarse (I heard one punter on the way out call it “panto”), it is not in any way comfortable viewing. That’s why it works so well.