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Tar Baby - review

Mar 5, 2016 Theatre

If you took a fistful of flawed diamonds and made a knuckleduster, and then threatened to punch someone in the face with it, and then didn’t, and gave them some of the diamonds instead, and sent them off not quite sure you weren’t about to punch them as they left, you would have an over-elaborate metaphor for Desiree Burch’s Tar Baby.

The show is a one-woman stand-up vaudeville interactive rant, hilarious and profane and deeply, deliberately uncomfortable. It’s also full of over-elaborate metaphors; the title refers to one of them, and that one in particular I’m still not sure I understood. One of the dozen or so audience participants the night I saw it was reduced to tears. There is no safe place to sit if you’re afraid of this happening to you, and if you’re not afraid now, Desiree Burch has an interesting learning experience in store for you.

This is a show about racism. Specifically, it’s a show about the experience of being black in America. Burch is a gifted stand-up, and there are any number of set pieces nestled in the middle of this thing which are simply split-your-sides funny. There are also a large number of moments which go beyond edgy; if you imagine “edgy” as the thing that happens when a performer walks right up to an invisible line, Burch is someone who stomps past the line and just keeps going.

There’s an inherent difficulty in assessing something which is purpose-designed to be challenging. (Challenging to white audiences; this is the kind of show where I have to say, “I am reviewing this take-down of white privilege from a position of white privilege”.) The show is a scattershot jumble from which you’re required to assemble your own whole; some parts seem over-egged and underconsidered, and others are so in-your-face it’s hard to know where to look. (“In the mirror”, would be Burch’s likely reponse.) It’s easy to imagine white critics taking refuge in faux-dispassionate complaints about the weaker moments when what they really mean is, “Good god woman, I didn’t personally create racism!” Yet those weaker moments are certainly there.

It’s also worth mentioning that Burch has not taken much trouble to look around and notice that she’s in New Zealand. A couple of lines seem written specifically for Australian audiences, and the rest of the show assumes you have a good knowledge of American history and pop culture: which most of us do, of course, there being many forms of privilege in this world. But the nature of the show turns these imperfections into useful discussion points: and if ever there was a show worth discussing, it’s this one. The heart of the evening is a long, frankly furious monologue with no humour to it whatsoever: a piece of searingly honest witnessing which is extraordinary to experience, and which left me shaken and shaking. You will not see anything like this again any time soon, and you will not forget it in a hurry.

TAR BABY, Desiree Burch, Festival Spiegeltent Aotea Square and Te Pou Theatre, New Lynn, 4, 5, 6 March.


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