Royal Court, London until 7 April 2018
Black Men Walking is a wonder, not just a desperately needed and relevant play on the British black experience, but an inventive one too, one that mixes rap with prose, and the present with the past. This is an electric show, and a powerful one too that does not pull its punches.
Remarkably, this play is based on truth – there really is a real-life black men’s walking group in Sheffield who regularly get out on to the Peaks and elsewhere both for fitness and to bond. And it is that sense of community that drew director Dawn Walton and writer Testament to this project, and to grab the opportunity to fuse this with a walk through black history in Britain which dates back for hundreds of years.
Only this play doesn’t feel heavy with exposition at all, far from it. Rather it is the heavy weight of the British black experience that is brought to life, especially in the sense of haunting, of spirits from the past remaining close by, as we follow three members of the group – Thomas (Tyrone Huggins), Matthew (Trevor Laird) and Richard (Tonderai Munyevu) – as they head out for their walk across the hills despite the threat of storms and fog.
Their chatty conversation is a mix of the wonderfully mundane (Matthew is having a spat with his wife and refuses to turn his mobile phone off), the scars of the recent past (Thomas shares his memories of the treatment of black footballers through the years), and the witty but astutely observed (Richard talks to himself almost endlessly on loop about the social politics of being of Ghanaian heritage).
But as the weather worsens, it becomes apparent that Thomas had an ulterior motive for being out here on the Peaks: the call of his ancestors. He sees them everywhere. Apparitions, perhaps. Maybe ghosts. But neither of his companions can see them. And by the time they realise how serious Thomas’ condition is, it’s too late for them to return quickly and instead they are forced to stagger on in the dangerous fog until they find safety.
The play is only ninety minutes in duration but for such a short play with a seemingly simple set-up, my, there is a lot of clever observation here.
First, we’re up on stereotypes here, with the ancestors haunting the Peaks depicted as a woman in hijab – only this ancestor is English, not from the Middle East. And even the three men themselves skewer the commonplace racist representation of Black men as criminals with the three friends fretting as much over the same pressures from family and jobs as anyone else. And with the same love of Star Trek too.
Second, there’s a really smart swipe at the dominance of the American lens here when Matthew and Ayeesha (Dorcas Sebuyange) a nineteen-year-old woman the three men stumble across in the fog, bond over a shared singalong over a Public Enemy track. One that is more awkward than you might imagine.
In fact, it is the arrival of Ayeesha that gives this show its punch, and that again is a pretty interesting take on gendered portrayals, with Ayeesha seeming to have more anger and a greater willingness to confront racism around her than her three male companions on this increasingly desperate walk home. Her breakouts into rap, pulling down the fourth wall to confront the audience with the realities of what it is to be a young Black woman in Britain today, stay with you long after the play finishes.
The play ends with a dramatic, emotional finale, as well as a powerful riposte from Ayeesha, but what we are left with is not just an awakening on the breadth of black history in Britain but, as the quote above testifies to, for the virulent racists that now feel enabled and empowered in this country no length of time will ever be enough for them to look past their belief that only White = British.
This is a wake-up call to all of us, especially white people such as myself, to stand up to this and confront it if this cycle of racism and oppression for black people is ever going to end. What a fascinating and critical examination of British identity as well as Black identity this is. For as much as these creatives bring to life Black British lives, so we are left to confront the racist White Brits and consider, what is it that unites us, if anything? What is it that makes a person British? Because I sure as hell don’t want to be associated with the racists – so what am I going to do about it? It shouldn’t be left to Black Brits to fight this alone.