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A CurtainUp Review
The Blacks: A Clown Show
By Jenny Sandman

This evening we shall perform for you. . . We shall even have the decency-a decency learned from you-to make communication impossible. We shall increase the distance that separates us. . . by our pomp, our manners, our insolence---The players announcing their intent for their "clown show."
Everything is changing. Whatever is gentle and kind and good and tender will be black. Milk will be black, sugar, rice, the sky, doves, hope, will be black ---Genet
The Blacks
Genet is known as much for his colorful life as for his plays; a friend of Sartre, he served in the French Foreign Legion, did time, and was a homosexual prostitute, among other misadventures. The Blacks: A Clown Show, perhaps his most famous (or infamous) show, is a sort of postmodern minstrel show, in which the black actors reenact the rape and murder of a white woman for a kangaroo court in fragmented, dreamlike language. But this pantomime is a front for a deeper, darker reenactment-that of racism, of class oppression, of outsiders banding together and lashing out.

Classical Theatre of Harlem has turned Genet's "clown show" into a fierce political statement,a parodic pastiche a la Mnouchkine's 1776. Even the color scheme has been polemicized--all black and white, with exaggerated shapes reminiscent of a circus tent. A diagonal runway slices through the assortment of white chairs; the court sits high above the audience on a platform that wraps around the space. Large black and white striped curtains drape the walls. The actors are dressed in black and white costumes; the men in exaggerated tuxedos, the women as various black stereotypes (the pickaninny, the prostitute, the maid). The court members are dressed in elaborate, larger-than-life period costumes, each befitting their role (queen, general, bishop, etc.). They wear enormous stylized white masks, and indeed, the masks are one of the best design elements of the show.

While the cast is multiracial, it is non-white, and at one point the black actors don blackface. The swarm of black and white, the masks, the exaggerated shapes, all enhance the air of surreality that permeates the script.

It is an energetic, captivating performance, with excellent ensemble acting. Each is a treasure and possessed of a strong presence, especially Ty Jones as Archibald and J. Kyle Manzay as Village. They sing, fight, dance, and soft-shoe, leap about the stage, and mingle with the audience in fairly unorthodox ways.

As the audience enters, the actors greet them, ushering them to hard white swivel chairs that are surrounded by the playing space. The actors converse with them, offer white flowers to the white audience members, and heckle the latecomers.

Even when the play begins, the audience cannot avoid direct confrontation. During the action, the actors talk to the audience, move amongst them, and occasionally bring them onstage. At one point, Village (J. Kyle Manzay) pulled a woman out of the audience and broke character to harangue her for close to fifteen minutes--until she admitted that yes, she did clutch her purse tighter when black men passed by, and yes, this was the same sort of racism that George Bush was currently displaying. Then the cast led every non-white person out of the audience and brought them onstage to stand in solidarity against the white people.

The actors hammer home the point so vehemently, so unrelentingly, that we grow weary of their message long before the end. While Genet meant for the performance to be uncomfortable, this performance is so aggressive and so confrontational that it risks alienating the audience. However, as a whole The Blacks it is phenomenal--fiery, gutsy, well-acted and beautifully designed. See it, but bring a cushion, and don't sit in the front.

Written by Jean Genet
Directed by Christopher McElroen
Cast: Ty Jones, J. Kyle Manzay, Jammie Patton, Maechi Aharanwa, Yusef Miller, Erin Cherry, Robyne Walker, Cherise Boothe, Ron Simons, A-Men Rasheed, John-Andrew Morrison, Neil Dawson and Oberon K.A. Adjepong
Sound Design by Stefan Jacobs
Lighting Design by Colin D. Young
Costume Design by Kimberly Glennon
Set and Mask Design by Anne Lommel
Choreography by Trisha Jeffrey
Classical Theatre of Harlem At 136 East 13th Street; 212-206-1515
Running time: They list 1 hour and 50 minutes without intermission, but on the night I went, it ran 2 hours and 15 minutes
Tickets $35
Through April 6
Tuesday through Saturday at 8, Saturday and Sunday at 3
Reviewed by Jenny Sandman based on March 18th performance