Nathaniel Martello-White’s first play Blackta is about being a black actor. More specifically, it’s about being a straight black male actor in your twenties and going up against the same guys for the same parts again and again. The characters don’t have names, instead they are shades of “blackness”: Yellow, Brown, Dull Brown, Black, etc.
There’s real potential in the absurdist context Martello-White has created. The characters audition for the “thing” and, if they do well, they get a green light. Their aim is to get the “leave the building never to return thing”, which can only be achieved by being given the “greenest of green lights” from the “thing”. Mostly, their lights aren’t green but amber or red. The tasks they have to perform are absurd, pointless and humiliating and yet they tackle them as if their lives depended on it, maybe more than their lives as they appear to be in a kind of limbo from which the chances of escape are minimal. In the meantime, each of them is a Sisyphus pushing their own personal boulder up the hill only to watch it fall back down. Boulders take various forms and it is in these moments that David Lan’s production shines, particularly a hilariously frenetic dumb show by Javone Prince in which he takes himself captive. The absurdism extends to the dialogue with the multiple uses of the words “thing” and “ting” creating a sense of dislocation as well as emphasises the claustrophobia of the characters’ world in which there is never any real expansion to their frame of reference.
It’s a pity therefore that the conceit isn’t followed through with the discipline and conviction it deserves. The characters strive to “leave the building” but they come and go as they please and go up for other “things” that aren’t the “thing”. It isn’t entirely clear why none of these “things” can get them the “leave the building never to return thing”. The absurdist framework sits uneasily side by side with a “real world” in which the characters also exist and which they refer to, though conversations tend not to extend beyond women, exercise and food. Nonetheless, it would seem that hell isn’t really hell if you can pop out and get a pizza when you fancy it.
The absurdist framework becomes just that: a frame on which to hang a series of observations about trying to make it as a young straight male black actor in Britain today. While these observations can be perceptive and/or entertaining, they are almost always entirely tangential to the dramatic action of the play. The characters passively accept their situation, turning on each other occasionally, until Brown decides to take action (much too late in the play), and when he does, whatever action he is taking is shrouded in mystery, hidden from the audience. All we know is that he is creating his own “thing”. The nature of this remains elusive, with the play’s final image, reminiscent of Pulp Fiction, one of Brown opening a case to show Yellow the shiny “thing” inside, assuring his friend that “it’s going to change everything”.
Of course, Brown’s “thing” is a MacGuffin, something different to everybody, except that it isn’t because the play’s world isn’t sufficiently open to allow for that. The “everything” that the “thing” is going to change is a very specific “everything” because it can only be “everything” for these characters and throughout the play we see them systematically shut everyone else out of their world in establishing their own very specific collective and individual identities. These are also identities that, one could argue, ironically have little to do their blackness and more to do with being male, straight and narcissistic.
Despite the potential of its conceit and the excellence of its production values, Blackta is let down by its exclusivity. It is theatre about theatre with actors playing actors complaining about how tough it is to be an actor. The conversation is not with the world as a whole but with other actors. Any allegorical power it might have had is lost in straying from the rules of its absurdist conceit and the attempt to connect the struggle of these particular characters with black people or black Britons in general feels like a stretch too far. What we are left with instead is that unusual thing for the Young Vic: an elitist piece of theatre.