Auckland Arts Festival: Clever, funny one-woman show tackles racism

By Janet McAllister

Desiree Burch uses stand-up to speak to America's growing majority of minority experiences. Photo / supplied
Desiree Burch uses stand-up to speak to America's growing majority of minority experiences. Photo / supplied

What: Tar Baby
Where: Spiegeltent, Friday & Sunday; Te Pou, New Lynn Saturday
Reviewer: Janet McAllister

This clever, funny one-woman show is about the extremely sticky tar-baby problem of personal racism. Not the most sexy topic, as African-American performer Desiree Burch points out, but hey, we can do a deal here.

"You want to say you've seen a very important show about race," she suggests wryly to her predominantly white audience, and in return, "I want you to buy me as a household name."

The uncomfortable pun on "buying" a black person is deliberate, as she leads us through an ironic carnival including "slavery time" - "everybody's least favourite time!"

Using a great script co-written with Dan Kitrosser, Burch does an excellent job of entertaining - and gently building remarkable audience rapport - while keeping the enormity of the issues in mind.

The focus is on people's casual attitudes and everyday interactions rather than structural, institutional racism, and Burch re-enacts several of her own experiences with angry humour and audience help.

In film auditions, she was asked to act more "urban" - what could that possibly mean? White people are shy about shouting out the requested black-stereotype answers (the sassy finger, the head waggle), so Burch reassures us: "just because you know what [racism] looks like doesn't mean you are racist."

Audience participation provides interesting and disturbing insights into Aucklanders' heads; the false myth that "Chinese are responsible for the housing crisis" seems particularly entrenched.

In contrast, when singer Bella Kalolo got up as audience volunteer, her intense horror at being asked to make Burch up in black face was deeply affecting.

The show is slightly too long and Burch needs a better response to those volunteers who try to combat racism with more racism of the "but people of ethnicity X are all so lovely!" type.

She also uses her charm to get away with potential intrusions - good sport Metro reviewer James Wenley will have an interesting "kissing booth" story to tell - but during Burch's angry rant, it's worth thinking about why you're squirming in your seat: recognition or denial? A compelling show.

- NZ Herald

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