“Wynter’s script is light footed and fast paced, packed with witty one liners, but unafraid of sombre, more human moments”
Black Superhero is a fresh and exciting exploration of black queer love, and representation, which effortlessly manages to straddle the personal and political.
David (played by writer Danny Lee Wynter) is a struggling actor, trying to stay true to his principals about black queer representation, but also trying to pay the rent. He is in love with his best friend, King (Dyllón Burnside) and King has just opened his marriage. However, what unfolds is not a love story, but a power struggle of hero-worship, self-loathing and the inevitable spiral into dark and familiar places.
Wynter’s script is light footed and fast paced, packed with witty one liners, but unafraid of sombre, more human moments. While questions of representation, particularly about whether queer actors should play queer parts, and queer baiting, do dominate the discussion, they are handled lightly. There are no tired and long-winded explanations, this is a play which expects a level of knowledge from its audience. As such it can dabble in the conversation, without getting weighed down by it. Also, it’s very funny. The biting satire of the white characters had the audience groaning, wincing and cackling. Yet the emotional connections felt real, and the depictions of joy were a pleasure. At one point David, speaking about the film Moonlight, comments on a lack of representation of queer joy. It is striking how much laughter (especially in the first half) does dominate the characters’ interactions.
Daniel Evans’ direction allows the play to bridge fantasy and reality but remain grounded in the present. The presence of an actual superhero on stage is bold, and at times a little clunky, but when it works, it works very well. There is a hilarious moment where superheroes in garish costumes are suspended in mid-air, parroting the ridiculous exposition all too familiar in blockbuster sci-fi. There is also an incredible moment where David is enveloped by a giant cape, occupying most of the stage.
Rochenda Sandall as David’s sister Syd was a real standout. She navigated the complex emotional role with energy and passion. She was both moving and hilarious.
Joanna Scotcher’s set is dynamic and futuristic. A huge metallic screen takes up much of the stage, made up of intersecting triangles whose borders occasionally glow (thanks to Ryan Day’s thoughtful lighting design). This screen bursts apart to reveal a bedroom, a party and at one point an intergalactic meeting spot. Sometimes though it means the action is cramped onto a small part of the stage, making it uncertain whether the set dominated some of the directorial decisions. There is one particular set piece, involving a waterfall made of sand, which is striking and beautiful and incredibly memorable.
While it’s true that the play loses steam a bit in the second half, it is original and somehow manages to have a new angle on questions of representation. In terms of representation itself, it is interesting how revolutionary it feels to see three gay black men kissing on stage. And also, crucially, being allowed to laugh, as well as cry.
In a pink bus dubbed ‘Priscilla’, two drag queens and a trans-woman travel across the Australian outback to perform at a venue in Alice Springs. The unlikely three run into a series of surprises on the way, some hysterical, some considerably more serious, but the biggest surprise of all awaits them at their destination. Outrageous and glitter covered, the journey is underscored by Tick’s anxieties surrounding his pending reunion with his son, and Bernadette’s own romantic journey. Based on the 1994 hit Australian film ‘The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert’ and adapted into one of the pioneering jukebox musicals for the stage, this is a cult favourite featuring hits from across the 70s, 80s and 90s.
Mark Inscoe’s Bernadette is the most consistently strong performance of the night. Glamorous, warm and always ready with a biting comment, Inscoe delivers this part with the class and professionalism she deserves and when it comes to the lip syncs Inscoe is impossible to take your eyes off. He looks considerably more comfortable in drag than his fellow actors, and commands the stage unquestionably. Inscoe’s performance is a clear example of the level this whole production needs to reach. Daniel Bailey’s first dance sequence as Adam/Felicia is fantastic – explosive, committed and dynamic. Unfortunately Bailey is unable to bring this energy to his acting. He feels unsure and clumsy, and rather fades into the background, particularly in the larger scenes. Tom Giles as Tick/Mitzi gets progressively stronger throughout, and shines in his show-stopping delivery of ‘MacArthur Park’. This a stand out moment, and he single handedly elevates the energy of the whole production. The relationship between Bernadette and Tick is particularly lovely, genuine and believable, and both Inscoe and Giles deliver moving performances in their more tender moments.
The main cast are joined by a lively community chorus, and the use of actor musicians in the show is a lovely addition which also provides visual variety to a stage, that is otherwise quite bare. Whilst the bus itself is cleverly designed by Joanna Scotcher, the cast are forced to work harder than they might otherwise need to, to generate the feeling of spectacle required. Mark Howland’s lighting design doesn’t help either, overly dark at points and less dynamic than I was hoping to see.
The chorus makes a fantastic sound which is at its best in the slower, harmony-based pieces, however in the faster numbers, particularly in the first half, the vocal entries are often uncertain and late, though the second half picks up in terms of energy and momentum. The vocals are frequently overpowered by the orchestral accompaniment and certain actors struggle without choreographed movement. This is a show whose spectacle relies on these chorus numbers being as impactful and as tight as possible, and it does struggle here.
Glitter, drag queens and a pink bus – if this doesn’t recommend a show, I don’t know what will. This production captures the fun, excitement and tenderness of the story, and is supported by some brilliant performances. Unfortunately it does feel rough around the edges, let down by uncertainty, however I hope that these issues can be solved by more rehearsal over the course of the run as this production is alive with potential.