Image: Still from Blackkklansman (2018)

Wise Children, director Emma Rice, on tour across England, based on Angela Carter’s novel ‘Wise Children’ (1991).

BlackkKlansman, director Spike Lee, released August 2018, based on a memoir by Ron Stallworth ‘Black Klansman’ (2014).

The theatre adaptation of ‘Wise Children’ and the film adaptation of ‘Black Klansman’ are both entertainingly funny about serious matters – seriously funny in fact.

Both shows have implausible story-lines, which are played for both laughs and insights into the experience and the politics of identity.

‘Wise Children’ delights in the doubling of twins of uncertain parentage: show-girls and portentous actors rub along in a family romp that sends up, celebrates and criticises the bawdy and carnivalesque aspects of life as a performer. The show narrates the lives of twins Dora and Nora Chance over their 75 years of singing, dancing, seduction and family uncertainty, culminating in their being presented with new-born twins. Wise Children is a life-enhancing rollicking fantasy, covering domestic and child sexual abuse and the randiness of youth, bearing witness to the fact that its author wrote both feminism for Spare Rib and soft porn for Men Only.  It was Angela Carter’s last novel, written after she had been diagnosed with the lung cancer that took her from the child that she had late in life with a man 18 years her junior.

The improbable plot of ‘BlackkKlansman’ is, in fact, documentary. The first ever African American detective in Colorado Springs – Ron Stallworth – infiltrates the Ku Klux Klan by simply telephoning a number, and leaving his (real) name and number, whereupon the Grand Wizard himself, David Duke, calls back. Ron Stallworth strikes up a telephone friendship with David Duke and the subsequently joins the KKK. At the point where the detective has to meet Klan members in person, he has to recruit a White stand-in. A plausible aspect of the film is the detective’s girlfriend Patrice, who turns out to be a fictitious character, whose role is to personify the Black Power movement.

The fantastic truth about race and gender is that they are shared fictions in which we collude. The fragility of these fictions means that the risible is never far from the surface.

Both ‘Wise Children’ and ‘BlackkKlansman’ offer glimpses of the ridiculous nature of the fantasy necessary to maintain gendered and raced identities. ‘Wise Children’ has been described as Angela Carter’s love/hate letter to the theatre, spanning its high and low art forms, taking in Shakespearean pomp and lewd Music Hall. Emma Rice’s production is a jolly dancing romp, of jokes and delight, which, with casting that pays no heed to conventional gendered and raced norms, amplifies the novel’s critical take on gender. The singing and dancing twins – Dora and Nora Chance – are played by puppets and by three different pairs of actors. Two sets of these actors include a man, dressed in women’s (or show girl’s) clothes.   Omari Douglas – a Black man – plays Nora at her most ravishing, and is absolutely as seductively feminine as his ‘twin’ played by Melissa James. Dora Chance at 75-years old is played by Gareth Snook, dressed in women’s wear, opposite Nora, played by Etta Murfitt in a matching outfit. Dora offers a knowing adaption of Oscar Wilde’s quip from The importance of being Earnest:

 ‘All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does, and that is his.’

The Dora-Chance-played-by-Gareth-Snook version of this bon mot notes the tragedy that as women age they come to resemble female impersonators: Snook offers a hammy look of faux outrage when the audience laughs. There is truth in this disingenuous joke: sometimes a male actor plays feminine better than a woman. In the interests of balance, the show also includes women playing men and young women playing old men, to great effect.

Both the critique and the joke of BlackkKlansman is encapsulated in the plot summary: ‘Black detective infiltrates White supremacist organization’. The film is laugh-out-loud funny in portraying the ludicrous nonsense that supports a racialized view of Black and White Americans. As if repetition of ‘God Bless White America’ were not ridiculous enough, we are treated to the spectacle of two, ostensibly White Detectives being admonished to shout ‘I’m Black and I’m Proud!’ at the behest of their Black colleague. When a superior Police Officer queries the plausibility of an African American infiltrating the White Supremacist organization, the riposte is ‘With the right White man, we can do anything!’ Such nonsense is not so funny when it is connected  with the fatal car ramming at Charlottesville that closes the film.

Ron Stallworth’s fictional love interest, Patrice, is a student involved with the Black Power movement. We see Stokely Carmichael (who together with Charles V. Hamilton, formulated the distinction between individual and institutional racism) address a group of students. These same beautiful students later listen, rapt, to Harry Belafonte telling the story of post-Civil War torture and lynching. Youthful Black Activists absorbing the horrors visited upon young Black men of a previous generation respond by chanting: ‘All power to all the people!’ and ‘A war’s a coming!’. The spectacle of beautiful Black youth coming to terms with the abuse of their forefathers is intercut with a Ku Klux Klan induction ceremony – the full pointy white hoods and flaming torches number. The parallel view of Black Power and KKK ceremonies and slogans is disturbing and ambiguous, perhaps suggesting that espousal of violence in a racialized conflict is always relational, such that no side can ever be entirely righteous. But this might be pushing Spike Lee’s intended meaning too far, given his evident disgust with the racializing rhetoric of Trump’s administration.

The film is rich in references for the film buff, but also has something for the social theory aficionado –  Du Bois and the colour line is mentioned as part of an earnestly flirtatious conversation between Patrice and Ron Stallworth. Du Bois, the first African American to get a doctorate from Harvard, should be more widely recognised as an early race theorist/activist and Spike Lee is furthering that cause.

The ‘Wise Children’ refrain – ‘What a joy it is to sing and dance!’ – is maintained despite the depiction of child sexual abuse, battery and fatal arson. ‘BlackkKlansman’ includes joyful dancing, alongside wicked criminal behaviour. Both stories suggest the fragility and cruelty of the human condition and the terrible consequences of excessive investment in fictions of identity which are also politically important.

Carter and Lee both point to laughter as a potent means of pricking the pomposity of the chauvinist, the misogynist, the racist. While laughter will not in itself forward progressive causes, the relief of a belly laugh in the face of sexist, racist dogma may allow us all to fight another day.