Black was one of the most stunning theatre shows of last year; and this week its creator, cabaret star Le Gateau Chocolat, returns with a new version of the piece, accompanied by a 12 piece orchestra.
The work, a Homotopia commission, tells the life of the extraordinary Nigeria-born, London-based drag artist and opera singer, and through song, animation, and candid interviews explores themes of depression and otherness as he tells his story, at once personal and universal. It is a beautiful and touching show.
After its premiere last year followed by a run at the Soho Theatre in London, Black secured Arts Council Funding, which has allowed Gateau to recruit the Psappha Ensemble for the latest Unity shows, this Thursday and Friday (November 6 and 7). He will only get to rehearse with them a few hours before opening night.
“For me, Black is incredibly raw material, and it’s finding a balance between being able to tell the story and not being affected by it, being removed enough to let people make up their own minds. What is really exciting and frightening is I might think I’m fine until I hear the orchestra play this music – it will be a completely new experience,” he says. “What’s going to be really exciting is that the new arrangement can only amplify things emotionally. I’m a bit nervous and it’s a bit overwhelming.”
Black utilises a repertoire of songs from classical opera and jazz standards to pop, showcasing Gateau’s rich, expressive baritone. It’s the kind of show that rewards the curious, that revels in challenging expectations and planting the seeds to see life a little bit differently. Of course, it is performed by a black man; but there are other meanings behind the show’s title he hopes resonate with a diverse audience.
“I’m a lycra-wearing large man in makeup – with that, people might automatically think ‘there’s nothing in this show for me’; or they might think they’ll be in for something like a fun hen night,” he says. “The show is not all doom and gloom. But showcasing humanity has always been part of my work.
“We have all been black once; or there may be a moment when unbeknownst, we have made someone feel black, or been the black sheep, rallying against what your family want to do. Working in this way, with the commission from Homotopia, we really wanted to explore and push that even further.”
Gateau knows of which he speaks. He suffers from depression, and reveals in the show he has lost friends to suicide. Black is wise and compassionate, and draws on his experience as a man of colour, a gay man, an immigrant to the UK, as someone who has struggled with body image and abusive relationships; it is a rather unique set of life circumstances, yet is almost impossible not to relate to in some way. Therein lies its beauty.
“Depression is a taboo, people are still uncomfortable when you talk about it – and that made me stronger in my desire to tell the story,” he says. “I still find myself incredibly vulnerable in front of my MD and the hundreds of strangers who have come to see the show. It is still incredibly unnerving, but it is in pursuit of truth.
“People in entertainment, people who stick on lashes and perform in drag, people think these things never happen to us. Yet there’s something about loneliness in theatre, that incredible constant juxtaposition. When I put on makeup, it feels like I’m putting on war paint. It doesn’t mean I’m not upset.
“If I’m performing, say, a big number from Les Mis in a skin-tight Dalmatian-print lycra costume, there’s still something bubbling under. We all have the things that keep us ticking over – habit – the 9 to 5 – it doesn’t mean it’s gone away.
“It’s an illness people can’t see. People were shocked when Robin Williams committed suicide from his depression, but the truth is it’s not discriminatory – Ruby Wax, Stephen Fry, your friend, your neighbour, people experience this and this goes towards showing no-one is exempt. But there is a humanity that connects us all.”
Gateau’s drag persona came out of necessity, he says. Big and bearded, it isn’t a mainstream look, even within the art form of drag (the popularity of Conchita Wurst notwithstanding). The name Le Gateau is a play on the musical performance directive legato; the style inspired by the performers in the Brighton club that started him on his cabaret journey after turning his back on a career in law, which he qualified in.
“Drag to me means the projection of what I want to be seen as,” he says. “Everyone at some point is in drag. At work, you want to project what you think your boss wants to see, you want to showcase the best side of yourself. But would you really say that was who you really are? So for me, drag showcases whatever it is you want to be. It frees you to explore light stuff or incredibly meaningful stuff, and it’s that that shapes the kind of performer you become and the venues you play.”
Gateau has performed internationally – although not extensively across the UK, yet – a career highlight was joining Glyndebourne Opera on stage. And balancing the cabaret scene with what might be seen as more highbrow projects is something he hopes to continue.
“It is important to me to branch out to people who would come to the opera or go and see a play,” he explains. “I come from gay venues and I’m incredibly grateful for queer and gay support, but what’s really interesting is the Homotopia audience over the years is so incredibly diverse, which is how it should be. And I want to speak to somebody who might call somebody else a faggot in the street – I want to be able to convert that person, to find a solidarity along the way – that is just as important.”
It’s about being a human being first, he says, and he hopes Black – which is very different to his previous one-man shows – might make audience members see things in a new light. He talks of a mother who bought her young son to see the show during its last Liverpool run, and spoke to him after of how it really made her conscious of the power and impact of her words on her growing boy.
“To me it’s important that Black is not just seen, but understood,” Gateau says. “To say to someone that when you look at somebody that way, or when you laugh and point, or exclude someone, what you are doing is not as frivolous as you think. It’s something I experience on a daily basis. I’m big, black and eccentric in the way I dress, but I won’t be limited, even though that sometimes gets negative attention.”
This still may not be the last we see of Black, as Gateau is contemplating extending the show from its current hour-long length to explore its themes in more depth.
There’s just one more question – but he’s not answering. Gateau doesn’t reveal his real name to interviewers. “It’s the only thing you don’t get to know,” he says. “My sort of drag is a different vehicle. I’m not hiding my identity. One of the reasons I keep my name from the press is that it’s personal in terms of coming out to my parents and making sure I control that.
“But through Black, you get to know exactly who I am.”