TRAPLORD, by Ivan Michael Blackstock, takes you on a searing and unrelenting journey into race, masculinity, and violence.
The multi-disciplinary performance piece incorporates elements of theatre, music, film, dance, and spoken word, tying in together to explore these dense concepts in their unique manner for the ninety minutes of stage time.
As I walked into the theatre space of 180 Studios, what initially struck me was the industrial nature of the space, complete with concrete, pillars, and a vague sense of foreboding. This was heightened by the moving headlights shining like interrogative flashlights, temporarily blinding me as they passed my eyes. The actors on stage, hooded and barely visible, darted away from the light, and occasionally headed up the stairs in between the audience. Masked and black-faced, their performances, beginning with a live rap battle, became more evident in their commentary on Black masculinity.
Blackstock appeared himself, often observing the action but occasionally taking the spotlight. Wearing a black bunny-eared hat that mimicked the masks of the chorus (and also in blackface), he undergoes a journey evoked through the filmic elements incorporated using the projector screen at the back of the stage. He acts as a video game character, a joyrider, and eventually seeks emancipation in a CGI-laden invocation of a heavenly Nirvana. The use of film was particularly enjoyed when it incorporated the symmetry of the stage, with the centre pillar dividing the projector into two halves for those sitting in the centre.
The slick choreographed movements from the performers ranged in tone, from euphoric release bursting with energy to an uncomfortable commentary on the confining nature of societal perception. At one point, a life-sized rag doll was abused on stage, and this bone-breaking handling was imitated by a dancer, pushing against the boundaries of human flexibility. This mistreatment was spurred on by a man in a pig mask, a representation of the social and political forces that promote carceral punishment in response to what it regards as unacceptable.
The deep vibratory bass of the music heightened each aspect of the dance and rap performances, and the spoken word was a welcome break in the pacing. One was acutely haunting in its presentation of toxic masculinity, of being told not to cry, to act like a man, to break yourself internally in order to appear strong externally. I questioned the tonal shift that occurred when an MC on stage invited the audience to join in (asking “how many of you are Black?”) and then immediately switched to points on lynching and enslaved peoples.
Overall, TRAPLORD was an interrogative and unremitting performance, that closed with a standing ovation and, in response, provided a reprise of an earlier dance piece. Often explosive but always astute, Blackstock, in collaboration with a flurry of brilliant creatives, has created a gripping, and at times overwhelming, an exploration into the boundaries and joys of Blackness.
Traplord ran @ 180 Studios until 16 April
Review by Mojola Akinyemi