How to show stereotypes of black masculinity without stereotyping black men? The issue comes up very early in Ivan Michael Blackstock’s Traplord, a dance, music, spoken word and video event that winds around themes of race, men and mental health. We’re in an industrial basement throbbing with low sound, the darkness pierced by searchlights that pick out figures sporting hoodies, puffer jackets and odd bits of bling. They flit from militaristic squadron to combative tussle, occasionally shooting fingers like pistols. It’s menacing, highly effective and awash with cliche. Crucially, though, we know it’s a mask – not only because it later becomes clear that some of the dancers are women, but more immediately because everyone is in blackface.
Black skin, black masks: this volatile conjunction is freighted with significance and dramatic possibility. Indeed the whole show is shot through with a sense of double vision. Back-projections show video game graphics, their animated, role-played characters forming counterparts to those on stage. As one performer krumps before a mirror, her image comes to look less like a reflection than a sparring partner. A floppy ragdoll dummy is substituted by dancer Kanah Flex, the contortions of his impossibly loose limbs expressive of more interior, psychological torsions.
It’s a very dense work, strewn with imagery – a Lord of the Flies-style pig mask, clouds of white powder, a song that echoes but does not imitate Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit – and sometimes it becomes a bit too much (what’s all the patter about “the perfect human”?). But it is always broodingly atmospheric and the deliberate imperfections of its stage world – lo-fi hums and distorted sounds, video glitches and image scratches – suggest a persistent emotional dissonance.
Through all this threads a slender story of a man finding himself: Blackstock, appearing often as an outsider in a rabbit-eared hat, sloping off to the sidelines or making himself scarce. Yet as often in storytelling, the buildup feels better than the final payoff. It’s been a gripping, perilous journey, finely danced and effectively produced – until the very last scene, where inflated symbols (a sword of truth, white-winged angels) strain towards resolution.