Review: The Black That I Am, Upper Church at Summerhall

Coming in at under an hour, The Black That I Am sought to look at black (specifically Jamaican) identities and the way in which different people exist and see the world. The set felt a little cluttered with clothes and props all over the stage (which is in a church). A shower curtain, a church pew, what looks to be a desk and chair were among the array of distracting items around the stage.

The show begins with a series of short poetic monologues playing over the speakers, while the actress Julene Robinson started to get ‘dressed’. Each monologue was preceded by a gratuitous costume change. At one point Robinson, after talking about how black men (don’t) look at her, gets naked behind the shower curtain. It was rather awkward to see the shadow of her nipples projected onto the curtains. It wasn’t needed and felt gratuitous.

The monologues were short and it almost seemed as if more time was being spent getting dressed and undressed instead of really exploring black identities and allowing us to hear how each character relates to their own blackness.

The writer, Karl O’Brian Williams, wrote The Black That I Am more than 10 years ago, and you can tell. The exploration of black identity is rather dated. Though three of the four monologues were women, the play has a sexist undertone to it. It painted women in a somewhat negative light. There was a lot that was touched upon but not fully explored. There was no nuance to the way that black identity within a white context was explored. It would have been more interesting to hear why one of the characters as a black woman wanted to marry a white man and how that fits in with the colonial gaze, but alas this was glossed over.

There was nothing new to anything that was being said. The women were tropes and stereotype whereas the male character was given a unique identity and had a somewhat complex backstory.

The Black That I Am had a lot of potential, and while the acting carried the play, with Robinson’s brilliant pacing and comedic timing, the writing let it down. Maybe 10 years ago, this play would have had some effect, but as it stood, it was a let-down.

That Black That I Am played at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.