Reviews London TheatreOWE & Fringe Published 16 February 2016

Review: Tar Baby at Vaults

The Vaults ⋄ 10th - 14th February 2016

Maddy Costa responds to Desiree Burch’s performance in a collection of open letters.

Maddy Costa
Desiree Burch in Tar Baby at Vaults Festival.

Desiree Burch in Tar Baby at Vaults Festival.

Hey Selina – so this is an unexpected place to continue our ongoing conversation about race/racism/your work/the white gaze/Beyoncé/and then some, but I’ve (bashful face) finally read the Audre Lord/Adrienne Rich dialogue in ‘Sister Outsider’ and it’s made me curious as to what ours might look like it it were in a more public space. But that’s for another time: here I just want to tell you quickly about the show I saw last night, Tar Baby, because it made me rethink something I said to you recently. We were talking about your journeys by ship between Ghana, Jamaica and the UK, retracing the slave trade routes, and I wondered “what forward looking is created by looking back”. It came from a more complicated and difficult question, about the traces of capitalist-patriarchal impulses in the search for ancestry (which, as I said, has its roots in my total resistance to the ways in which heritage can equate to privilege, the notion of children being used by families as some kind of trophy, etc), the insidiousness of that overarching structure even in our intimate desires. But watching Desiree Burch perform Tar Baby last night, I questioned what else might be buried in my wondering. She talked about facing the criticism, time and again, that she should be “over” slavery by now, “over” the abuse of black people. She remembered being 16 years old and being confronted by a (Mexican) classmate: “It’s 40 years since civil rights. When are you going to move on?” At the time she wasn’t able to answer, because she just didn’t have the words, but now, in this show, she asks: “When does anybody get to mourn?” And I flinched, because it made me ask myself: to what extent is my desire for a looking forward in your journey, as well as a looking back, related to that impulse to demand that black people move on? To what extent am I asking you – to quote Desiree – to keep “shouldering the burden of history”, without sitting with you in a contemplation of that history? To what extent am I avoiding the responsibility of mourning with you?

I would love to know what you thought of this show. It reminded me of your anxiety around the stereotype of the angry black woman – because Desiree is furious in this show, there’s a 20-minute section in which she is a volcano of rage, there’s no avoiding the lava flow, and it’s searing and hard but also extraordinary – and of stuff you’ve said, for instance in Dark and Lovely, about going to school in a mostly white environment, and the ways in which you’ve been criticised for not being black enough. There’s a whole section in which Desiree goes to a casting and is asked to be “more urban” – you guessed it, more black – and she has no idea how to do it (which also reminded me of Aziz Ansari in Master of None, and his resistance to adopting a stereotype “Indian” accent). At the end, everyone in the audience is given out a “race card”: a little business card that you can hand to someone when they say something racist, to open up a discussion about it. I remember watching you perform a scratch version of Race Cards at CPT and being horrified that people had said, to you, to others, in comment boxes, “why are you using the race card?” I had no idea that was even a thing. But that’s how white privilege works for me, isn’t it: I get to not even see, let alone feel, these things.

Anyway, I have to get on with this review, but love you and thank you again again for the space to talk about this. There’s a beautiful thing Adrienne says to Audre: “I take seriously the spaces between us that difference has created, that racism has created.” More and more, exploring that space feels like life’s good work. xx

Hey Brian – I do this so rarely, respond directly to someone else’s review, that I feel a bit awkward. But I’m trying to learn to live in discomfort, so here goes.

Despite its positive notes, I find your review of Tar Baby difficult, and part of that is definitely to do with the question of what it is for a white man placed by this critical relationship in a position of power to stand in judgement over the work of a black female. I think you ask quite a lot of Desiree: specifically, you ask her to “make meaning out of what she’s said”, and argue that her “main point, that racism still exists, is an obvious one”. But is that a problem of the show, or your watching?

There’s a section in the show when Desiree talks about natural hair, and her hair in particular, and the experienced journalistic critic in me rolled her eyes and thought: “This old chestnut.” But is the problem that Desiree, like so many other black female performers, feels the need to tell us a story about an old white man rubbing his hands through her hair uninvited – or that people feel it’s OK, acceptable, to run their hands over and through black women’s hair uninvited? If the meaning of the show is that racism still exists, not just as an abstract idea but a lived experience, is that a weakness of the show, or the world in which that show is performed? You say her arguments are “scattershot”, but maybe that’s the only possible response to the scattershot violence that killed Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Michael Brown, people mentioned in the show and whose names I had to google to make sure I had them correct, because it’s my – our – privilege not to carry those names like scars. But then again, that violence isn’t scattershot: it’s institutional, political, pervasive. Unreasonable. And this is an unreasonable show.

Towards the end, Desiree narrates a version of the Tar Baby folk tale, in which Brer Fox attempts to catch Brer Rabbit by putting a baby made of tar in the middle of the road; when it doesn’t acknowledge Brer Rabbit’s existence, he gets angry and starts punching and kicking the tar, only to find his limbs getting stuck. The story, you argue, “never yields its promised significance”. But what if the tar baby is racism itself: this misshapen thing dumped in the middle of the road where no one can get past without it getting in the way, and any time you try to deal with it you just get more and more dirty, frustrated and stuck? I know, that’s a rubbish interpretation. But is it really up to Desiree to make meaning, or be “productive” (another criticism you levy)? Is it really up to black women to “solve” racism? I don’t say this to disavow the work of black women who are and have long been challenging societal, institutional, political racism, but to emphasise that it’s work every one has a responsibility to be doing. And doing that work is so hard when the entirety of culture, of language, is stacked up against it. A while back, someone – I wish I could remember who – pointed out that in the language of children’s stories, badness is always equated with blackness. So people absorb the message that being black is being bad, inferior, wrong, from the earliest age. The point that “racism still exists” is so obvious people don’t even see it: and so it needs restating, over and over and over again.

I’m – long overdue – reading Audre Lorde’s ‘Sister Outsider’ and there’s a paragraph in her essay ‘Poetry Is Not a Luxury’ that feels pertinent to this. She writes: “There are no new ideas still waiting in the wings to save us as women, as human. There are only old and forgotten ones, new combinations, extrapolations and recognitions from within ourselves – along with the renewed courage to try them out.” I see a lot of courage in Desiree’s show: the courage to speak out, the courage to challenge, the courage to risk alienating an audience, the courage of digging deep to expose the worst of oneself. In that courage I find the meaning of Tar Baby.

Hope to see you soon so we can talk about this further. Much love xx

Hi Desiree – it’s funny, I work with a lot of theatre-makers but never address “reviews” to them directly, at least not unasked. I wasn’t sure how I was going to write this one, especially as a couple of weeks ago I wrote a review in the voice of a carnival barker – a voice you also adopt in Tar Baby – and so as I walked out I thought: drats! Can’t do that again! It was a really useful exercise, that piece of writing, because it made me wonder about the difference – or lack thereof – between that kind of hyped-up exaggerated advertorial and the uncontained enthusiasm of the five-star review. I also learned, in a moment of procrastination, that carnival barkers don’t like the term, because they find it derogatory: instead they prefer “talkers”. That feels apt.

Anyway, I just wanted to say how electrified and taxed I was by your show. I found it desperately uncomfortable a lot of the time: I was sitting in the aisle on the third row, and the idea of being pulled up on stage for one of the participation bits was basically terrifying. In fact, my friend Amber tweeted the day after I saw it that Tar Baby was scene of her worst ever participation experience, and left her in tears. I can understand why, and I’m interested to know how much you talked during the making process about the relationship between that kind of enforced interaction with the mechanics of slavery and the legacy of collusion. It was fascinating to me that no one left the stage: everyone obeyed the rules, the conventions, just as society continues to obey the rules and conventions of white hegemony, just because they’ve been around so long that nothing else seems possible.

The rant section is uncomfortable, too, because it’s so unleashed: it’s like being cornered at a party with no means of escape. When it finished, you said something about wanting to “make sure that somebody felt me”. I know I can’t feel the trauma you feel, the need for healing, the despair that accumulates with a thousand tiny, and not so tiny, evidences of everyday racism. I feel sorry for Amber, having such a horrible memory of the show, but I also know that it’s not the worst kind of abuse that a body might experience. My family are from a former British colony – and I lean on this more and more when writing about work – but I don’t bear the burden of history as you do. It’s why I find work like Tar Baby important: it asks people to look harder at the world around them and – crucially – look harder inside, at themselves.

I’m carrying the race card handed out at the end of Tar Baby with me in my handbag: I want to be brave enough to use it.

Good luck with the rest of the run. All very best

Maddy x

Hey Griffyn – so did you get to see Tar Baby? WHAT DID YOU THINK?? xx

Tar Baby was on as part of Vaults Festival 2016. Click here for more of their programme.


Maddy Costa

Maddy Costa is a writer, dramaturg, researcher into socially engaged/participatory/community arts, daydreamer and fan of dogs. She works in collaboration with other artists/writers, including Andy Field on the Tiny Letter project Criticism and Love, and Mary Paterson and Diana Damian Martin on Something Other and The Department of Feminist Conversations. Things she likes making include zines, prints, spaces for conversation, cakes and 1950s-style frocks. She hosts a pop-up “book group for performance” called Theatre Club where she has all her best conversations about theatre.

Review: Tar Baby at Vaults Show Info

Written by Desiree Burch and Dan Kitrosser

Cast includes Desiree Burch



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