Auckland Arts Festival: Tar Baby
Thursday 3rd March
Spiegeltent, NZ Herald Festival Garden, Auckland
Reviewed by MARIA JI
As a med student, I’ve studied the human heart. Looked at photos, videos and many a preserved specimen. Held one in my hands, even. But comedian Desiree Burch knows what heart is. She’s seen them bleeding out; she strains to feel them beat in the chests of others. She attentively listens to her own. And she’s certainly put a whole lot of heart into her one-woman show Tar Baby.
As the ringmaster of a carnival where racism is the only animal on show, Burch exhibits its history, act by hilarious act. Throughout the night, members of the audience aren’t just encouraged to reflect on how we might be complicit in perpetuating racism – we’re invited onto the stage to become part of it. Because, really, we are already a part of it.
Burch is the Willy Wonka of Racism Town, the flamboyant sage who uses comedy to help us understand just how complex “the great unfixable” is. She makes us play games that highlight racial tensions in the room – those that are universal, but also ones particular to Auckland, too. How do we package the prevalent belief that the Chinese are responsible for the NZ housing crisis? How do you turn so much hate and fear into a less racist conviction? Since we can’t seem to destroy stereotypes, how do we make it all seem… less vulgar?
She often asks questions without straightforward answers, and asks us to fill in the blanks. But the thing is, we can’t. Our offerings seem flimsy and simplistic. Discussions about race and racism inevitably become a hot mess, and Burch embraces this in her frenzy of a performance. It’s a patchwork medley of the ridiculous, the absurd, and the very scarily real. Black lives matter isn’t just a hash tag; racism isn’t just another news article to like on Facebook. In this ‘post-racial’ society that we supposedly live in, people of colour don’t walk free from the burdens of history. There are centuries of residual baggage, and it is a heavy load to bear.
Desiree Burch is a stellar performer, and she punch(lin)es through the darkest moments of Tar Baby so that it ends on a hopeful note. Though racism cannot be smashed away within the space of 90 minutes, Burch succeeds in making us reflect on the process of ‘othering’ and ‘thinging’ other people so that it becomes easy for us to judge and disempower them. And that achievement alone could have warranted the standing ovation at the end.
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