Comedian Desiree Burch, best-known for her solo show 52 Man Pick-Up, returns with another one-woman show called Tar Baby. Instead of just reflecting on her own past, Burch looks at our country’s history, with comic emphasis on how race and capitalism collide. The show, which opens on January 8 at the DR2 Theatre following a sold-out run in New Orleans, was directed by Pick-Up helmer Isaac Byrne and co-written with Dan Kitrosser. New York Press recently spoke with Burch and Kitrosser about their newest effort.
NYP: Where did this idea first come from? How long have you been working on the show?
DB: Dan and I were trying to figure out how to work together and make some money from theater. We both have extensive experience as arts educators, and thought we could talk about personal and cultural stories and storytelling and probably get a connection to libraries or something. It was a lovely half-baked idea that had lot of wonderful questions surrounding it, and surprisingly a lot of personal experiences that I started dredging up.
DK: I had known that Des was interested in following up 52 Man Pick-Up, her internationally acclaimed solo show that details her all of her illustrious liaisons, with a show dealing with race – and eagerly trying to tailgate on Desiree’s awesomeness parade, I cooked up a notion where we would use examine Zora Neale Huston’s work on African American folktales, mirroring her life with some of Desiree’s life stories as well to give it a modern day relevance. We started work in the summer of 2010 and by almost the first meeting it became clear that Des’ life story and her perspective on race was for more interesting and relevant that rehashing someone else’s.
We started work on the show with a few conversations in Bryant Park where I was always tired from performing my kids show and Desiree was irritable from being on a diet that consisted of nuts and lemon water with cayenne pepper. Surprisingly, a show came out of that which was presented as part of TerraNova Collective’s Solo Nova festival at PS 122 in the summer of 2011. We took it to the New Orleans Fringe in November of 2012 and here we are back in New York for a January 2013 Off-Broadway opening.
NYP: Is it possible to address a controversial topic like race in America and be comedic?
DB: I think you have to address it comically. Granted, as a comedian and someone who believes in the power of that mechanism of laughter, I am biased – I believe anything important does. It’s that cracking through to a personal surface that allows people to appreciate all their very serious feelings. Comedy is all about controversy, I think. It’s all about creating communities, even when that sometimes means dividing them so they can look at each other.
DK: I think the only hope of coming together, in any conflict, is comedy. If we’re all laughing at something, that means we are recognizing ourselves in it, and from Shakespeare down the line, isn’t it the fools who tell us the truth? So when it comes to race, a subject as a liberal white person I am going to feel awkward, beholden, nervous, and generally uncomfortable about, being able to laugh at the mild or even the horrible with Desiree allows me to connect with those of other colors and experiences.
NYP: Are you worried about offending the audience?
DK: What’s the old line – if they’re shooting at you, you know you’re doing something right? At the same time, I actually don’t think this show is “offensive.” There will be people, I’m sure, who are offended by the notion. But Desiree, being the comedian that she is, knows how to take care of an audience.
DB: Yep. A lot. I am scared sh–less of this show. I think I have always been that oversensitive type, and not speaking has been what’s allowed a lot of the things in this show to build. But now it’s time to not be so shy. It’s good for people to be bothered sometimes. Being offended may lead to forming one’s own opinion, which may necessitate someone thinking about different things. And that is always good. Really, the show is about luring people into a place of more attention. If that means they are offended, that will make me all wounded and sad or whatever it will do, but I know it will make me and others stronger.
DK: And as we working through the structure of the script, we also tracked how the audience would feel. Like, if we bring people on stage ten minutes into the show to do a dance number (spoiler alert!), is that going to make them want to interact with her more immediately or should we wait a little? And ultimately, in writing this show, we realized that the dramatic action of this show is Desiree trying to connect with the audience. Even though some outrageous things happen on stage (and in the audience), we want connection, we want introspection, and we want communication.
NYP: What kind of censorial eye did both of you bring to the project – were there some ideas where either of you said, we’ve gone too far?
DB: I think that in our writing process we definitely came across those things gleefully and enjoyed the sharing of that experience. A black woman and a gay Jewish man can really have a field day with offensiveness if we want to. But ultimately, I think we avoided much of that simply because we were trying to create in service of telling personal and cultural stories, and a lot of the “let’s cross the line for the sake of crossing it” became “will this serve the show?” So I think it’s just offensive enough to really allow stories that are very human and universal to land.
DK: I think the way we wrote was trying to see how far we could take the audience in any given direction and then see if that had any meaning. One idea that Desiree and I thought was brilliant that was ultimately never even used was in order to show how Desiree profited from our capitalist system, Desiree would read allowed the box office receipts showing who had paid a full ticket, who was comp’d, who took a discount. It would have been such a huge betrayal of the audience’s privacy, which did excite us, but even as I’m describing it now, I can’t quite pin down the reason—which is why we do not do that in the show. But we never thought or said, “Ooh, you can’t say the word ‘black,’ or mention Wesley Snipes – people will get uncomfortable!”
NYP: How much research did you do for the show? What forms did it take?
DB: Even before the writing of the show, Dan and I have both worked as storytellers as educators, and because the story of racism is ultimate about story, that was a good background to come from. I also had worked for several years as an educator with the American Place Theatre, which has both a touring show about Zora Neale Hurston’s life and work, and a collection of slave narratives. I remember the day, during a professional development session, talking with other teachers about how to teach slavery, and as a speaker started talking about it as an economic institution, citing various other cultural parallels, it dawned on me… Oh. “This all started with money!” and things started falling into place. This was not the education about slavery I had received, which was all about insensitivities and rage and betrayal and all these amorphous feelings surrounding a very concrete stupid plain reality: money. And suddenly the pain started to leech out of ancient feelings for me.
NYP: You mentioned audience participation a little earlier. What might those attending the show expect?
DK: One of the reasons this show took so long to take shape is because there are few predecessors in terms of structure. A hilarious interactive carnival of race and capitalism? And it’s a solo show? So what can an audience expect? They should expect to laugh, to be entertained, to think about issues of race and class and America and history with a new sense of empathy towards its victims and its aggressors. They can expect to wowed by a relentless energy and intellect that comes from Ms. Burch and can be expected to join in the fun when it calls for it.
DB: Well, it’s a Desiree Burch solo show, so yes, audiences can expect some participation. I tend to like the kind that is both unifying and provocative. The show is really aggressive while being inclusive, and only begins to scratch the surface in terms of starting a conversation. But I think audiences can expect to surprisingly connect to some parts of the show, and be thinking about other parts afterward. And I do hope that they leave with more questions and answers, leaving them with a little more intellectual and personal work to do in the new year.
For tickets and other information about Tar Baby, visit http://desireeburch.com/.
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