The advertising for this production of Le Gateau Chocolat: Black features prominently a quote from Maya Angelou’s I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings: “There is no greater agony than bearing an untold story inside you”. This piece of wisdom from Angelou can often be found superimposed over photographs of dramatic sunsets to be shared on social media, but it makes perfect sense to attach it to Black. This is a show in which Le Gateau Chocolat really does birth an untold story and offers an often heart-breaking, but also regularly humorous depiction of a life as an outsider consistently belittled for his dreams, weight, sexuality, and race. Impossible to pigeonhole into one definable genre, Black is an intensely personal and moving show that gives an insight into the mind of an outsider striving against the world. It is currently showing at the Theatre Royal Stratford East until the 8th of April.

Le Gateau Chocolat has been described as “one of the hardest working men in cabaret”,[1] and with good reason. He puts his booming baritone voice to use regularly in opera – recently appearing on the National Theatre stage in their 2016 production of The Threepenny Opera – is renowned as a drag performer touring the world with La Soirée, has performed with Basement Jaxx at the Barbican, and also found time to write three solo shows: Icons, Duckie, and Black. In this current production of the latter of these, he utilises all his skills from this varied oeuvre to create an innovative form of storytelling.

Black is a multimedia show that charts the life of Le Gateau Chocolat – refracted through the story of Little Black- through music, audio recording, and a projected cartoon. The cartoon and audio recording depict the life of Little Black growing up in Nigeria, focusing on his dream of being an opera singer and the obstacles he faces along the way. After being ejected from the local pool for wearing a women’s swimming costume, Little Black seeks comfort in sugary foods. This leads to him becoming “not so little any more” and he starts to feel increasingly detached from society: feelings that only intensify when he travels to the UK, studies law at his father’s behest, and ends up in a dead end office job. This narrative is punctuated by Le Gateau Chocolat giving heart-felt performances of songs that range from Wagner to Nina Simone, all supported by a twelve-piece orchestra partially visible at the back of the stage.

These songs, which are all sung beautifully, are used to create an emotional narrative that runs alongside the story told by the projected cartoon and the voice from the speakers. Possibly the single most affective moment of the show is in fact Le Gateau Chocolat’s performance of Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”. This comes soon after one of the humorous “Tips for the Fat” sections of the show, which focus on finding the comedy of adapting to life in a larger body; one notable piece of advice: “recalibrate your understanding of the phrase, ‘it fits’”. These recurring interludes are played for great comic effect, but immediately after this comic line comes the rendition of “I Wanna Dance With Somebody”, which illustrates the isolation that results from the genuine insecurities behind the humour.

Bright lights shine and a spotlight appears, into which Le Gateau Chocolat steps. The song starts to play over the speakers and he starts to lip sync along, beaming with an infectious smile. However, the music fades and is replaced by a slower and more textured refrain from the orchestra at the back of the stage. The smile remains but the context changes it. He gives a haunting performance that delves to the heart of the loneliness he feels, and his expression becomes one of wistful desperation rather than joy. The upbeat dance number becomes a sombre ballad exploring his need for human contact in a world from which he feels detached.

It may be this moment that causes Alice Saville, in her 2017 interview with Le Gateau Chocolat for The Stage, to describe Black as  “a piece that tarnishes the shallow gleam we’re taught to expect of drag queens, and juxtaposes the camp chaos of Friday nights out with the tough reality of Monday mornings back at a job you hate”.[2] While it is impossible to disagree that this is an element of this show – and the performance of “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” certainly adds weight to this interpretation – Black goes deeper than this. As the show reaches its climax it examines not so much the monotony of reality as opposed to childhood dreams or hedonistic weekends, but the existentialist dimension of the point of living in a society from which one feels entirely separate: “In a world where Little Black is deemed a black sheep does he decide to live, or to end his life?” Before the show’s finale, “We’ll Make Our Garden Grow” from Leonard Bernstein and Lillian Hellman’s 1956 operetta Candide, Le Gateau Chocolat speaks for the first time in the show. In his monologue he talks openly, but never self indulgently, about the experiences that led him to write and perform Black. This monologue pulls the fractured narrative of the show together and gives an extra dimension to everything the audience has seen and heard up to that point. Black is innovative, entertaining, and deeply moving, and Le Gateau Chocolat’s voice is wonderful. This show is not quite like anything else.  

[1] Alice Saville, “Le Gateau Chocolat: ‘Before I’m gay, black and fat, I’m human. My work is about that’”, The Stage 26th January 2017. https://www.thestage.co.uk/features/interviews/2017/le-gateau-chocolat/

 

[2]  Ibid.