The eponymous ‘Blackta’ is a black actor, one who is often there to fill a quota of non-white performers. This crackling satire from Nathaniel Martello-White paints a picture of a world where there is often only one role for a black actor, and therefore competition is fierce. The characters of the play, all actors at varying stages of their careers, are friends but also competitors.
Martello-White’s actors audition continually, being subjected to regular humiliation in endless callbacks. This is also a metaphor for the difficult experience of black men in a predominantly white country. The men are trapped in the waiting room until they are called in to the audition room, where only one of them can get the green light which frees them, guaranteeing fame and riches. Martello-White writes stunning street dialogue and the macho one-upmanship on show is entirely convincing.
Director David Lan has created a very exciting and intriguing production in Blackta, exploiting all the wit of the script. It is inescapably clever and consistently intense. The episodic and at times surreal style conjures images of computer games, and Jeremy Herbert’s highly imaginative and superbly realised set and lighting design (with Nicki Brown) completes this almost futuristic atmosphere.
The cast all give thrilling performances. Anthony Welsh leads the cast with fervour and style as the radical figure, Brown, determined to create his own ‘ting’ in order to break away from the ‘main ting’. Javone Prince as the fantasist, Dull Brown, provides a very tender counterpoint to the other more extroverted characters. Leo Wringer gives a poignant performance as the ever-present Older Brown, who ultimately resigns himself to hopelessness.
The problem with this play is that it feels out of date: it portrays a world where ‘the ting’ is set against black people, where the entire system is prejudiced, where black people stand almost no chance at all. This seems curious, especially in the context of mainstream successes in cinema like Kidulthood and television dramas like Top Boy. It seems that the play’s final call-to-arms encouraging black actors to create independent work, has already been fulfilled. The revolutionary vibe is therefore somewhat diminished by a feeling of irrelevance. Of course, that is not to say that there is not still work to do, that discrimination against black people has disappeared altogether from Britain. Martello-White just seems to have exaggerated this problem to such an extent that it is no longer possible to relate to it. The production may have benefited from being refined a little, as it is also rather long, and this may have streamlined the message a little more.
Blackta is on the whole very enjoyable, and there are some moments of sheer hilarity and wonder. It does bring to the front of the audience’s minds debates surrounding equality between the races, and – whether or not the judgement the play seems to make is entirely timely – this is a worthy result in itself. It is the first play from Martello-White, and he shows great potential as a playwright. It is a show full of ideas that is certainly worth seeing.
Blackta is playing at the Young Vic Theatre until 24 November. For more information and tickets visit the Young Vic website.