티he frame – both scenographic and historical – for Jeanefer Jean-Charles’s Black Victorians is photography. Its point of departure was ㅏ 2014 exhibition of rediscovered photographs of black people in 19th-century Britain: stiffly posed studio portraits whose subjects are frequently wearing the tailcoats, collars, bonnets and crinolines familiar from countless British costume dramas. Pictures from that exhibition circle the stage and form the backdrop to Black Victorians. Less costume drama than costume dance, the work imagines the lives behind those uncanny, unblinking images.
Performed outdoors, the piece is bookended with tableaux of its black cast standing still and facing us for longer than is comfortable, as if posing for a photograph for which our own eyes are the camera. The formal opening polka for two couples – men in tails, women in ballgowns – sets a courteous, corseted tone that gives way to a more sinister scene of initiation in which a swaying, spiralling newcomer (Nosiphiwo Samente, in plain rehearsal clothes) is roped inexorably and dispassionately towards a chair. Bound, she too becomes bodiced and gowned and bonneted, with two men positioning her hands and head to compose her into a demure portrait – a coercive act of assimilation that gives the lie to the polka’s picture of polite integration.