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Tar Baby

nytheatre.com review by Ed Malin
January 7, 2013

Tar Baby

Desiree Burch in Tar Baby | Tara Godvin

When you enter the carnival-looking theater space, see the posters of Desiree Burch as an exotic African circus attraction, and watch the "white slave" assistant Phoebe Mar Halkowich sweeping up, you may be confused.  Of course, just before this your usher has informed you that there is much audience participation in the show but you can get out of it by wearing a name tag which reads "RACIST".    This is the beauty of Tar Baby, a very funny show from "your one relatable black friend", Desiree: you can choose to laugh, becoming a participant in racism, or you can choose to think about what you are seeing.

Desiree dresses like a real showwoman (thanks to costumer Tricia Bastian) to bring you the tender and awkward experience of race in America.  For example, volunteers are brought onstage to work in the sugarcane fields, which here means picking up Sweet&Low packets.  As soon as all the sugar is harvested, the packets are casually dropped on the ground again, and again.  Then there is the traditional test of strength with the hammer and the bell.  Here, you will need to confront impossible proverbs like "all black people can dance" to prove you're not a racist.  You may very well be able to sling the hammer competently enough to hit the mark for "hipster", which is a few levels above "KKK member".  Desiree gives her volunteers a childhood memory which they can now wrestle with, such as the white friend who name-drops rappers and ends up being blacker-than-thou.  And then there is the annoying experience of being a real black person in an audition where there is clearly only a stereotypical part available.  Through some more wondrous theatrical devices which I will not divulge, Desiree gets to the heart of her Ivy League education and the young Caucasians (whom she now tutors) who take such privilege for granted.  Perhaps you will laugh, then go home and cry.

Kudos to the singularly amazing energy of Desiree Burch for making this show relevant and engrossing throughout.  She has taken this show on the road to the New Orleans Fringe Festival, which just shows how dedicated she is to bringing people together on what she ironically characterizes as the "shallow", "made-up" subject of race.  Co-writer Dan Kitrosser penned the song "Sold, Sold, Sold" that sets the mood for so much of the piece.  Director Isaac Byrne is to be congratulated for keeping the piece flowing, provocative, and still uplifting.  And where would we be without Joshua Rose's great big top set and circus lighting?