French existentialist Jean Genet, who was renowned as much for his criminal activity as for his literary output, concocted “The Blacks: A Clown Show” (1955) as a kind of surrealistic, postmodern minstrel show, in which the black actors re-enact the rape and murder of a white woman for a kangaroo court of white aristocrats. This Evidence Room staging, helmed by L. Kenneth Richardson, luxuriates in eye-popping sets, lights, sounds, visual effects and a large, impressively facile ensemble. What it lacks is Genet’s intent to instill a sense of danger in the audience.
All the actors, no matter their ethnic background, are adorned in some aspect of black face makeup and/or masks. The shuck and jive posturing of the clowns and their leader, the Mr. Interlocutorlike Archibald (Michael A. Shepperd) is merely a facade, masking Genet’s dissection of the deeper, more sinister roots of racism and class oppression and of the inevitable retribution that will cast the accusers down into the bowels of hell.
Genet was as chaotic in his writing as he was in his life. Richardson’s production extravagance, as well as his finely wrought but ponderous attention to Genet’s chaotic thematic minutiae and meandering plot details, actually sabotage Genet’s true intent. What remains is a high-end clown show.
Dominating the proceedings is Snezana Petrovic’s massive, brightly decorated, multilevel setting, highlighted by a crownlike elevated rear-stage platform that houses the Court. The five-member tribunal is populated by symbols of British colonial racial oppression: the Queen (Marlene Warfield), her clueless Valet (Jason Delane), Judge (Sean Runnette), Missionary (Jan Munroe) and Military Governor (Jonathan Peck).
The court members offer a running commentary throughout the show, offhandedly relating or admitting to the countless atrocities committed against blacks throughout history in their name. The impact of their confessions is diluted by the many distractions offered up by the onstage pizzazz. Their death at play’s end comes off as a cartoonish nonevent rather than a foreboding prediction of future events.
Shepperd’s Archibald exudes the confidence and pomposity of a minstrel Mr. Interlocutor, doing whatever is necessary to marshal the energies and talents of his eight-member ensemble to not only put on a show for the Court but to eventually overthrow it. Shepperd (the voice of the bloodthirsty plant in Broadway’s “Little Shop of Horrors”) is a dervish of activity, prodding and cajoling, as well as breaking character and the fourth wall at will to get his point across.
He also has some active companions who are constantly pursuing little agendas of their own. The most intriguing character is Deotatus Village, played to the schizophrenic hilt by Victor Love. Deotatus cannot decide whether he wants to keep playing his role as the murderous avenging sword of the black man or settle into a white man’s middle-class lifestyle with his lady love, militant prostitute Stephanie Virtue (Uma Nithipalan).
Rivaling Petrovic’s sets are the extravagant, character-perfect costumes of Ann Closs-Farley and the evocative lighting of Anne Militello. Further enhancing the show’s environment are the intermittent ethereal a capella vocals of Alisa Banks.