Featuring a repertoire ranging from Wagner and Purcell to Nina Simone and Whitney Houston, Black is an intimate and confessional portrait of Nigerian singer Le Gateau Chocolat’s life. It played Theatre Royal Stratford East 4-8 April 2017. Review by Colin Hambrook.
Inspired to make Black following death by suicide of two friends, the journey Le Gateau Chocolat takes his audience on is delivered with a meticulous sense of theatre and a voice spun from gold.
With superb orchestral accompaniment from the Psappha New Music Ensemble, Le Gateau sings not only as if each song were his own, but as if his life depended on it. Each note through the performance is wrought with emotional charge, each line timed for its relevance to a confessional story of a thwarted vision to know and to find value in oneself.
Launching into Billie Holidays ‘Strange Fruit’ takes the story beyond the personal to a wider sense of identity with the challenge to racism and bigotry. Black doesn’t seek to preach or to bow to notions of victimhood, yet it does attempt to illuminate an experience of the world that is often hidden away. It is a show about depression, yet orchestrated through a melancholy glass − like a fairytale − the story of Black is uplifting and infused with a passion for life.
The stage is set with a bed, bedside tables with lamps and paraphernalia, including a small doll of Le Gateau as operatic diva. Behind the bed is a frame devised at varying times as a screen behind which Le Gateau is projected with a magical chiaroscuro, dressing room mirror and a disco light show. If ever theatre can bring magic to its audience, Black is it.
Shot through with digitally animated vignettes, we follow the story of Little Black from a childhood in Lagos to his father’s dream of him becoming a lawyer in London. Black tells the story of a personal journey of the struggle to realise the value and importance of one’s dreams. Along the way, he manages to turn Whitney Houston’s disco classic ‘I Wanna Dance’ into a soulful plea to the world for acceptance.
This is where the extent of Le Gateau Chocolat’s acting skills come to the fore, fastidiously choreographing his way through extremes of emotional mood and temperament. There is a theme of contrasting the inside persona with perceptions of what is acceptable in the outside world that illustrate the psychology of Black. He takes us from a deeply melancholic rendition of ‘Old Man Sorrow’ to a hilarious interlude couched in pathos where we follow Black to the shopping centre, balancing the hues of the show with moments of humour.
If clothes maketh the man, then it is clear that Little Black’s wardrobe has from a very early age thrown all convention to the wind − and ultimately, we share his pain at a world that is too narrow-minded for his sense of creativity and fun. As his audience, we celebrate that fact and share the sense of liberation he reveals.