You are probably racist. But it’s not your fault, insists Desiree Burch, “because we’re all products of a racist society.” Burch is a black actor and comedian and, though desperate for a time when her skin colour doesn’t matter, for now it’s the focus of her show Tar Baby.
A contender for the Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award, Tar Baby is a provocation to its audiences, a reminder to check our privilege and kick back against the structures that still make society, and us its members, inherently racist. Because for every Obama moment, there’s a Sandra Bland or Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown. (Flyering police officers with the line, “help beat the shit out of racism”, would be unthinkable in the States, Burch says, but here they just laugh).
And for Burch, “white supremacy”, a phrase she returns to repeatedly, is also played out in more entrenched and insidious ways, from schools that whitewash a racist past to boardrooms stuffed with old, white men. “In America we just talk about ‘ain’t America great’. We don’t focus on all of the horrible things that we’ve done, and don’t ever take responsibility for them.” There’s a long pause and a resigned laugh. “It’s so psychotic.”
If this all sounds hopeless…well, it is. But Burch’s approach is to make us laugh as our hackles rise during her “carnival of race and capitalism”. “You can get a lot of truth out of comedy in a way that’s like a spank and a rub,” she says. “Comedy gives people a laugh and so they’ll take the harshness.” Between stories drawn from Burch’s own experiences of racism, audience members are picked on to play games like "Test Your Strength". The aim is “to bring out the element of capitalism that is implicit in any form of oppression.”
The carnival theme came from Burch’s memory of school trips to amusement parks where, out of teachers’ sight, the meanness of kids went unchallenged. And funfairs are a classic setting for horror behind the humour. “It’s always on the brink. It’s really fun and then you puke everywhere.”
Personal experience is what drives the show: in one story, Burch recalls an audition where she was asked to “be blacker”. It happens all the time, she says, because of pressures to please backers and make money. “They’re operating out of fear and they don’t trust their audience at all.” It’s more common in film and television than stage auditions, but there’s certainly a real dearth of roles for black and minority ethnic (BAME) actors. Burch remembers talking to a black British actor about the issue: “He said, ‘I looked at my résumé and it was slave, slave, slave…’ because those are the only things he would even be considered for.”
I ask if quotas are the solution and Burch is unsure at first. “I don’t know. I understand how that is stymying.” Quickly, however, she talks herself into the idea. “But all creativity comes with constraint. You create the best things because you had to overcome something.” And then she’s in full flow, orating passionately as she does at the end of her show: “Theatres are like, 'How can we build our audience? Our audiences are dying because they’re old people.' Well, you will get people of colour and you will get younger people if you are representing them on stage and in the writers’ room and as directors. You can’t want one thing, but give them the same old shit. Sometimes it’s necessary to go, 'Look, deal with it. You’re all creative people. Deal with it’.”
Burch wants people to talk about these things “so it’s not just the burden of a person of colour to bear”. She is wary of being labelled as "the person who always brings up race", but her response is clear: "I'm not the only one with a race in this conversation. You all also have race. But you see yours represented so you don’t feel the need to discuss it."
It’s easy not to notice the lack of diversity in theatres and on screen. It’s easy to be complacent, not to speak out. Burch makes it depressingly clear just how deeply racism runs in our society. It may be less verbal and less visible, it’s certainly less acceptable, but it’s there in every all-white cast, every audition for "slave" or "sassy black woman". It’s there through omission, when BAME actors aren't actively encouraged to try for lead parts. And Burch wants us to talk. “You can talk about your guilt, your anger, your confusion. Even if it’s full of questions and ignorance, go ahead. Just don’t not have the conversation.”
The Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award
Last year, the Fringe’s biggest debate around freedom of expression was provoked by a show that didn’t happen: The City, by Israeli company Incubator, which was cancelled after just one performance following protests.
This year, discussions about human rights are wide-ranging. Some contenders for the Amnesty International Freedom of Expression Award, like Walking the Tightrope, have emerged directly from last year’s discussions and tackle knotty issues of censorship. Others are starting different conversations. The Amnesty award is given to an outstanding play at the Edinburgh Festival carrying a human rights message.
Labels, like Tar Baby, addresses the deeply ingrained language of racism, but in a British context and in the midst of immigration debates. In a world where our online privacy is routinely threatened, meanwhile, Heartbeats & Algorithms imagines the control that corporations and governments might seize hold of through our data.
As our cities change, more and more communities are threatened. Verbatim show E15 takes a timely look at the housing crisis in the UK, while Smash It Up explores the destruction of art and public space. At the same time, the growth of zero hours contracts continues to erode the rights of workers, providing the target for the comedy in Katie O’Kelly’s Counter Culture and for Atiha Sen Gupta’s investigation of exploited casual workers in Counting Stars.
And some shows are fighting for freedom of expression by smashing taboos. Fake It 'til You Make It is breaking the silence around men’s mental health, while Trans Scripts offers a platform for transgender voices. As the Freedom of Expression Award recognises, these are all discussions that need to keep happening. – Catherine Love