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Allied Farces 

Black Benatar's Black Magic Cabaret finds audacious humor in a risky topic.

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EVIE LEDER
  • Evie Leder

Generally speaking, you might think that a theatrical experience incorporating queer drag culture into conversations about racial justice would have a pretty self-selecting audience—the kind of folks, in other words, who think that they already "get it," and are just there to cheer along with ideas they already agree with. But in a sense, that's a feature of Black Benatar's Black Magic Cabaret, rather than a bug. This is an experience that isn't about preaching to the choir, but about letting the choir know that they still have a few tunes left to learn.

"That's actually the whole story of the show," says Kyle DeVries, producer for Black Benatar's Black Magic Cabaret. "It's the dynamic between this powerful, black queer femme ringleader of the show doing this circus around racial justice, and this trying-to-do-well but never-doing-well-enough white 'reparations intern.' You think you know enough, but there are going to be a lot of times you don't."

Black Benatar's Black Magic Cabaret takes the form of a variety show, including circus-style performers of acrobatics, stage magic and more. The centerpiece narrative between those acts, however, involves that interaction between Black Benatar (co-creator Beatrice Thomas) and the aforementioned intern, Wyatt Allai (co-creator Steven LeMay). It's bawdy, funny and frisky—not at all a lecture.

Designing the show with that sense of fun was important to Thomas, who began sketching out the idea for the show at a San Francisco club a few years ago with LeMay and writer John Caldon. The trio started improvising ideas for skits exploring themes of racial justice and allyship, and the trials and tribulations of trying to be an activist in these times.

"I feel it's so important to bring joy and humor even to the most difficult topics, of which racism is definitely up there," Thomas says. "If we're ever going to change hearts and minds, we need to be able to create connection, and I find collective joy to be a powerful force for creating connection. Plus, for those of us who are doing the work, we need to be able to laugh and smile in between the tearful moments. It gives us hope and strength."

"Everything has this big Vegas sensibility—costumes larger than life, characters larger than life, a game show going on," DeVries adds. "All these things that have a flavor from our culture of being joyous and fun. It's this little bit of a rollercoaster it takes audiences on, sometimes having them think deeply, sometimes just laughing."

Thomas and their collaborators started workshopping the production in 2018 and 2019, developing the basic format that would include the performances between the main narrative segments. When the pandemic hit last year, it stalled the development process somewhat, but also provided an opportunity to receive a grant from the New England Foundation for the Arts National Theater Project.

As it happened, 2020 also included the high-profile national protests for Black Lives Matters surrounding police violence and racial injustice, but DeVries believes that despite the timing, those events really didn't have a tremendous impact on the show itself. "I think the show was already so much along that trajectory, that it hasn't shifted the content of the show much at all," they say. "It's already so much about that. If anything, it's more relevant and more on people's radar."

This week, Black Benatar's Black Magic Cabaret finally makes its full premiere, on the Kingsbury Hall stage—but not in front of a live audience. Instead, the show will live-stream on Friday, April 2, in a presentation that incorporates local performers from the BIPOC and LGBTQ communities, as was always the goal for the show as it toured. Adapting to a virtual show did require some fine-tuning, as audience participation was always meant to be a key component of the show. Now, online viewers will engage in that audience participation digitally, with viewers getting a QR code that takes them to a website with interactive components.

"Getting filmed and streamed presented a whole new set of challenges," DeVries says. "There were certain things that would have worked much better with [a live audience], and not as well when you're filming it. But we have a five-camera set-up with professional equipment, for a show that otherwise wouldn't have had that support."

And, significantly, Black Benatar's Black Magic Cabaret is able to make its debut by taking its message everywhere at once. "The great thing is that, by streaming it out, we're going to be able to bring it to a national audience," DeVries says. That means even more people can learn that being an ally is more complicated than it might seem—even if you think you already are one.

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