First published in The Times, Thursday August 27 2015
Rarely has systemic racism been interrogated with such a potent mix of anger, wit and self-conscious theatricality as this one-woman show from the New York-based performer Desiree Burch. She has a background in comedy and her engaging, at times uncomfortable performance straddles the worlds of stand-up, performance art, vaudeville and diatribe.
The opening segment takes the form of a gaudy pageant, with the performer, in the guise of a carnival barker, leading us through a potted musical history of the transatlantic slave trade. She scatters rice, cotton and sugar on the stage, then coerces volunteers from her largely white audience into picking them up. The sequence sets the 90-minute production’s twin states of feeling: chunks of amiable, interactive comedy undercut by repeated shifts into a more serious exploration of Burch’s racial identity. “You will get to know me and love me,” she says with a wry smile, “and then I won’t seem black to you.”
Pic: Jannica Honey
She regales us with stories of her formative years, including the niche she carved out as the only black member of her high school drama club. As this was acquired through sending herself up for the entertainment of her white classmates, her limited social capital went hand-in-hand with a creeping self-loathing. Burch goes on to describe how, years later, auditioning for a short film, she was asked by the director to be more “urban”, more “street” and finally to emulate Eddie Murphy in the Nutty Professor films.
The warmth and congeniality of Burch’s presentation lures her audience into a false sense of complicity. We laugh along with her tales of everyday humiliation then squirm in our seats when she turns the question around on us. “Seriously,” she wants to know, “how can I be blacker?”
The answer proves as uncomfortable as it is outrageous with Burch presenting a string of caricatures that culminates in the Tar-Baby chapter from the Uncle Remus stories, performed in blackface. It is a poignant reminder of how even the most universal metaphor can be used in mainstream culture to reinforce demeaning and marginalising racial stereotypes.