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A scene from The Blacks: A Clown Show
(Photo: © Richard Termine)
The theater has never felt more dangerous than it does in Classical Theater of Harlem's revival of Jean Genet's 1959 play The Blacks: A Clown Show. Christopher McElroen, co-founder and executive director of the company, has directed an electrifying production that is bound to cause discomfort amongst audience members -- particularly if they're white.

Currently playing at the East Thirteenth Street Theater (the home of Classic Stage Company), the show immerses spectators in a fully interactive environment. The audience is seated in white swivel chairs in order to observe the goings-on in all parts of the theater. Cast members occasionally walk amongst the seats, holding private conversations with various theatergoers. At the center of the proceedings is Archibald (Ty Jones), who serves as ringmaster for the all black cast.

"We have killed this white woman," he announces to the audience. On stage is a coffin, adorned with flowers, that supposedly contains the woman's body. The players begin to ritually re-enact the victim's rape and murder, some more reluctantly than others. Village (J. Kyle Manzay) plays a hesitant murderer, constantly interrupting the action with minor protests. He is, in turn, interrupted by other company members for not playing his part in the appropriate manner.

The reason for the ritual remains unclear for most of the performance, and even after its purpose is revealed, the audience is left in a state of confusion. Ritual is one of the playwright's recurring themes, as evidenced by its prominence in such other works as The Maids and The Balcony. It is the form and ceremony of the events that seems to have intrigued Genet -- the way that rituals can be used to misdirect the viewer's attention from what is actually going on by offering a stylized representation. Conversely, a ritual can also allow people to portray what they are not in order to get at who they really are.

The Blacks is filled with long, poetic passages and passionate meta-commentaries on the value of role-playing. Genet tends to repeat the same themes over and over again, and it is to the production's credit that this only occasionally translates into overwrought stage sequences. For the most part, the show is thrillingly theatrical. The pacing is quick (there is even some overlapping dialogue). Cast members engage in seemingly spontaneous asides to each other and to the audience, which gives the production an edge and a feeling of immediacy.

The most riveting sequence in the production is an improvised exchange between Village and an audience member who has been brave enough to answer his call for assistance. On the night I saw the show, the volunteer was a young French woman who is studying at Princeton University. Village took the opportunity to question her regarding her attitudes toward blacks and her knowledge of black history. This is bound to change from night to night, depending upon the volunteer; but if future exchanges are anything like the one I observed, tensions between the actors and the audience will be at their highest.

The Blacks: A Clown Show
(Photo: © Richard Termine)
Several of the actors are incredibly good. Special praise goes to Jones and Manzay, who anchor the production. Also to be commended are Yusef Miller (as Diouf), who performs some of the best mask work I've seen, and Maechi Aharanwa, who is nearly an elemental force as Snow. I felt relieved that Aharanwa never approached me and quite sorry for the audience members who were the focus of her wrath.

Some of the other players are not so adept. This is particularly true of those comprising the "Court." Wearing white masks and seated for the majority of the performance on a balcony at the back of the house, they represent the ghosts of dead white authority figures such as the Governor (Ron Simons), the Queen (Cherise Boothe), and the Missionary (John-Andrew Morrison). They speak in affected accents and seem to have less facility for Genet's language. You get the feeling that these actors don't really understand the meaning behind the words, while those on the ground (as it were) seem to make very specific choices regarding the lines they deliver.

The design elements of the show are also quite specific and contribute to a unified vision. Set designer Anne Lommel has transformed the performance space into a circus big top complete with ropes, ladders, and platforms. Everything is rendered in starkly contrasting black and white; this applies to Kimberly Glennon's fabulous costumes as well, although the occasional prop or mask does reveal other colors. Sound designer Stefan Jacobs underscores a great deal of the dialogue, incorporating everything from African drumming to the "William Tell Overture." Colin D. Young's atmospheric lighting also serves the production well.

At an intermissionless two hours and 15 minutes, the play does lag at certain moments. However, the energy and commitment of the 13-member ensemble is impressive. If you've got the stomach to endure an evening of confrontational theater, Classical Theater of Harlem's The Blacks is most definitely worth checking out.

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