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Review: Black – Le Gateau Chocolat

Cabaret Festival

With only the merest glint from light-reflecting sequins to draw attention to her frame, a diva sings. Rewind after the opening number and we speed from Wagner to a childhood in Lagos — so begins the story of Little Black.

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Le Gateau Chocolat will be familiar to Adelaide audiences from his appearances in Fringe shows such as La Soirée, Le Gateau Chocolat and ICONS. This solo show, Black, premiered in 2013 at Homotopia in Liverpool then went on to huge success at London’s Soho Theatre.

The piece was inspired by the experiences of friends as well as the performer’s own dark travels with depression. In a recent InDaily interview, he talks about “putting the make-up on to reveal the person behind it”. Black is an exploration of life’s struggles and the shame and stigma experienced by the performer as an overweight, gay, black man.

In the centre of the Dunstan Playhouse, a simple bedroom (one messy bed and two small lamps on bedside tables) serves as the setting for the telling of a sombre, often challenging, tale. Behind the bed a frame becomes a window, or a mirror, or a screen for animations.

There is voiceover and live piano to accompany Le Gateau Chocolat’s gorgeous voice — freed mainly to sing but also to speak from time to time to deliver brief, tender monologues.

The music choices, so diverse and contemplative in their subject matter, are transcendent. They move from classical to contemporary and back again, patching together pieces from Gershwin, Bernstein and Purcell with Whitney Houston and original compositions.

There is joy in the boy’s early years. Happiness burns inside him with the intensity of the Nigerian sunshine — he has a vision for his future. He yearns for the diva’s life of gowns and pearls and the adoration that comes with a career on the stage. And swimming! The boy loves swimming but not when his choice of costume (his sister’s frilly two-piece) doesn’t meet with the approval of the pool attendant. Here, self-expression is only acceptable within defined parameters. How easy it is to ruin the pleasures and passions of a young person with a glance, a comment, or a stifling restriction.

Yes, this is cabaret but cabaret that invites us behind the curtain to expose the man.

This is brave theatre — personal and poignant. When Little Black finally steps out of the shadows we’re full of hope. With nothing much more than the batting of oversized eyelashes and some tiny movements, mere flutterings, the spotlight reveals the person behind the hurt. He wants to dance, but when the night falls the weight of depression returns.

Brief moments of humour — “tips for the fat” — bring respite from the hazy world of lost dreams. The cute and cuddly toddler grows and grows and soon life becomes “less of a fairy tale and far more severe”. The boy’s relationship with a school bully morphs into something much murkier and even more tormented.

Le Gateau’s expression of his suffering is exquisite, and his rendition of Nina Simone’s “Black is the Colour of My True Love’s Hair” earns reverence from an audience in thrall to his magnificent baritone voice.

The young man moves away from his homeland to make a new life in London. Despite achieving his father’s dream, his working life is unfulfilled. Taking calls on the NHS Direct phoneline doesn’t make best use of the talents of an accomplished singer with a law degree. He begins to contemplate the idea of not having to deal with the expectations of others. What to do? Escape, or embrace life’s heavy skies and sit with the darkness until the stars appear again?

Black is a single, lustrous pearl of a show. A one-hour revelation borne of a lifetime’s struggle to transcend prejudice and pain. It highlights our common humanity and implores us to remember those who wish only to be loved for who they truly are.

The final performance of Black takes place this evening at the Dunstan Playhouse. 

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