Help me. I’m standing in front of five hundred or so people, on stage with a guy who looks like Errol Brown. I was called up here with another Caucasian, two Hispanics, two Japanese people (one of whom is bonkers), two black people, and another Caucasian, this one an uninvited teacher from Baltimore. I’ve somehow been roped into an ethnically-based dancing competition, where I will defend my race’s dancing ability in front of, seemingly, the whole of Harlem. Since my dancing is usually described as grotesque’, I’m not feeling that confident. Welcome to the World Famous Apollo Theater (I realised a few days later that I had heard of it, in the song ‘Walk on the Wild Side’), whose Wednesday Amateur Nights, like this one, have helped to launch the careers of some of America’s most prestigious black performers: Ella Fitzgerald, James Brown and Michael Jackson, being a few. The set-up is aggressive and confrontational: for each member of the audience, absolute commitment to each act is necessary as basically every performer is subject to a constant wave of either cheers or jeers, sometimes changing if they miss a note. They do this often, because they can’t hear over the cheers. It strikes me that if the audience shut up, they’ll get a better show. The dancing competition is the first twenty minutes of this drawnout and reasonably embarrassing show. People of different races are invited from the audience onto the stage to dance for thirty seconds; one imagines that this is intended to disprove racist stereotypes about dancing ability, however, in my case, it merely served to firm up the assumption that white people can’t dance. Remarkably, from the very start of a show which is ostensibly whole-heartedly multi-cultural, celebrating the very foundations of the rainbow nation of America, I start to feel marginalised. Of course, I suppress this awkward inclination. I am aware that the history of representing black voices in theatre is a chequered and nasty one: the tradition of minstrelsy which dominated the American popular theatre for about seventy years was about entrenching stereotypes of black Americans: the wise old Uncle Remus, the strong, matriarchal Mammy, the loveable buffoon. The most distressing part of this construction of black identity is the way it has pervaded black culture itself, as a still-racist Hollywood has an unpleasant ‘black themed’ Oscar ceremony, compéred by matriarchal neo-Mammy Whoopi Goldberg and celebrating derivatives of whitedefined stereotypes in “Monster’s Ball”, or the cultural predominance of images like The Fresh Prince of Bel- Air, a show run-through with colonial imagery. One cannot accuse the Apollo’s Amateur Night of the same tendency. Granted, the compere has a few crap ‘black people are different to white people’ jokes, but there are no post-minstrel images. Daisy Donovan turns up, in a surreal twist, and is booed off-stage almost immediately: partly because she was rubbish, partly, I suspect, because her choice to sing ‘Simply the Best’ was met with suspicions of racism. There are two questions which this theatre asks: first, is this aggressive or antiwhite? And secondly, what, if anything, can white theatre learn from such a vibrant event? This piece of theatre, like other plays I saw in America, had less selfawareness than one might expect from a diffident Oxford student’s effort. There was nothing suspect about a singer telling an audience, mid-song, that he chose God over land, over money and over his own name, and then inviting the audience to chant “Jesus”, which they refused to do, while simultaneously celebrating the fact that this demand was being made of them. I felt implicated more as a Brit than as a white person, becoming awfully worried that maybe there was something undignified about this level of commitment to the theatrical moment. This, of course, was something which shocked me about myself: surely we should encourage this engagement. Antonin Artaud and Konstantin Stanislavsky would certainly support this, since one of the most important points of overlap between their theories is the sweatiness and guts to be involved in any theatrical production. Here is absolute commitment, absolute physical exertion in the theatre. Brecht would be excited by the importance of participation in this theatre, and Augusto Boal certainly would. Both being theorists who demand that their audiences exercise their own personal agency, be it intellectual, political or, in some of Boal’s work, physical. Amid the cheers of hundreds of people in either voracious support or disgusted condemnation of any fool who decided to give a half-baked and over-long version of ‘Unbreak My Heart’ by Toni Braxton, the first question in “why do I care what you think about this performer?” As a fellow performer, my first instinct is to cheer all the louder when someone is doing badly. Again, I was missing the point. don’t care what a busload of schoolkids from Delaware think of the god-botherer, but more importantly, I don’t really care about the godbotherer either. The audience forced into an often brutal and necessarily empowered critique of the performance and, even better, constantly forced to act on the basis of it. This, I finally concluded, was the point, and I was glad to have felt a little uncomfortable. The energy is not racial in character at all; it is the fundamental of an exciting and relevant theatre. Our ‘national’ theatres in Britain do nothing compared to the Apollo towards achieving this vitality, which restores one’s faith in the threat of live action, the violence of true theatre. The entertainment on offer is often banal, but the effect legendarily powerful; the audience leave the theatre running into Harlem, shrouded in senses of occasion, personal potency and ritual. Who could say that about Merry Wives of Windsor at the RSC?
ARCHIVE: 4th Week TT 2003