Desiree Burch has three words to describe racism: “the great unfixable”. Her show both tries and doesn’t try to fix it, calling bullshit on the idea of a “post-racial” society while at the same time acknowledging the desire for a space where we can finally put things right. It’s difficult, it’s hopeful, and it’s angry.
It’s also very funny. Complicatedly, uncomfortably funny, full of laughs that linger in the air like question marks. Burch fits the show into an interactive carnival framework, playfully roping members of the audience into games and jokes alike. But games are never just games and jokes are never just jokes; so often they rest on prejudices and assumptions, a tension that Burch slowly and skilfully brings to the surface.
There’s a tension too in the performer-spectator dynamic, one that Burch pulls taut. Racism, she says, is essentially about turning someone else into a thing, an object. Watching her on stage, the (mostly white) audience is forced into a similar relationship. Are we really that different from the casting directors who demanded – she tells us with humour and frustration – that she be “more black”?
A 250-word review is never going to be able to address all the complexities of race and institutionalised inequality. Neither is a 90-minute show – and Burch knows it. Tar Baby is unapologetically problematic and incomplete. That’s the point. And in its problematising, it’s a sharp, necessary and galvanising reminder of how far we still have to go.