Wednesday 21st February 2018 at West Yorkshire Playhouse.
‘We walk. Though we are written into the landscape you don’t see us. We walked England before the English.’
Written by Testament, the sophisticated wordsmith responsible for WOKE which impressed not too long ago (review here), Black Men Walking is lyrical and weighty with lots of moments of humour through playful mockery. The play is a salute to forgotten figures of the past and a call to unite and take ownership of ‘home’ in the future. It seeks to enlighten as it covers ‘two thousand years of history’ in short and sweet segments interwoven with very contemporary discussions of vital issues affecting us all. It also demands recognition of the fact that things are not always as the history books say – there has always been a place for people of colour on land too many still claim as solely their own. An Eclipse Theatre Company and Royal Exchange Theatre Company Co-Production, this four hander explores what it means to be black, British and walking out in the Peak District.
Thomas Huggins is a stoic Yorkshireman; stubborn and upright with an iron will and a gift for ‘reet’ Yorkshire dismissal of fussing. Tyrone Huggins plays the part with rugged sensitivity; something is plaguing him, but his comrades can’t decipher the mutterings and distractions. One moment has Thomas charging ahead full of certainty and another has him on barely in the present. Thomas educates with his tales of black historical figures who walked the hills they walk way before England was England as it is now known. Creators, landowners, and pioneers – Thomas wants their stories heard by the younger men so full of questions about their place in the world. Tonderai Munyevu plays the lovable Richard – endlessly optimistic until his father is mentioned… Testament explores ideas of fatherhood, family and cultural obligations through this character and it’s beautifully delivered material. Munyevu’s Richard is the source of both big laughs and big questions – carrying the only accent that can be identified as not recognisably ‘local’, he voices the questions of black British men: ‘how long do we have to be here for this to be ‘home’?’ What is ‘home’? Do you have to sound northern, southern or something in between before you can be accepted as British? The questions are vast here, and that’s what makes it such an interesting piece of theatre – it’s not clear if anyone has an answer to please anyone – not even Thomas.In contrast to both Thomas and Richard, Matthew, played by Trevor Laird, is a slightly tragic southerner; all excessively polite exclamations of positivity and an eagerness to put a silver lining on things. Laird definitely strikes a solid balance between being the butt of Testament’s gentle southerner digs and more serious reflections on life, his past and his marriage. That semi-comical marriage presented through his attachment to his phone paves the way for some lovely (if a little heavy handed) moments of wry humour as he laments the loss of appreciation for nature – while tapping away on his device. Laird’s scenes with Dorcas Sebuyange, playing Ayeesha, offer a little endearing undertone of being an ‘out of touch’ dad type. So within this trio of men basking in escapism from a troubled and troubling world, we have Matthew over-annunciating with desperation as he pleads with his ‘sweetheart’ to leave him be on his all-male getaway while Thomas’ Yorkshire twang offers hard truths rather than pacifism; Richard remains in between the two – offering well timed comic announcements and fuming over his obligations to a disinterested father.Enter Ayeesha: rising star rapper carrying a chip put there by those still to realise that British isn’t defined as white. She’s a whirlwind arrival to the reflective men-folk who cover great ground in their conversations – but Ayeesha sees them as ‘comfortable’. They’ve settled and sent their irritations into the background of their lives while this young female is fiery and forward-thinking in her dealings with marginalisation and racial abuse. She challenges the men – particularly Matthew, who only knows ‘hip’ music because of his wife – and knows little of the history Thomas so proudly recites. For Ayeesha, he seems to have lost touch with what it means to be black – she claims to sussed him out as ‘Black, but not too black’. Abrasive to begin with, Ayeesha’s out for herself and Dorcas Sebuyange’s characterisation is bold and witty; full of quips and quick-fire sardonic observations, she calls it as she sees it and makes no excuses. Yet while Ayeesha offers the strong black Bristish female voice, she also offers the voice of youth and of the contradictory feelings of being tough enough to withstand the despicable behaviour of others but also reminding us of the devastation felt behind the tough cookie exterior. Though a relatively minor role, Ayeesha offers some of the most powerful moments and observations of the whole play – she is an excellent character who pounces out of the script and demands an audience for her wisdom.
Director Dawn Walton has quite a challenge on her hands with the staging of Black Men Walking. Designs from Simon Kenny see all four characters atop a make-shift strip of land, given height at each end, with millstones lying on one side. There is a screen used for the almost spiritual sequences as Dorcas Sebuyange doubles as some form of ancestral figures appearing and disappearing before the troubled Thomas (a somewhat clunky device not always as impactful as evidently intended). Behind them is a wall of rock; layers and layers of rock older than any of them or any of us. Walton’s direction must make use of just those things so we have our characters ‘walking’ on the spot in various directions for much of the performance. It works surprisingly well but I’d definitely have liked to see more variation in some way. The screen and millstones do allow for some visual variety at key points but there are scenes which feel on the static side. What does work well to pick up pace is the threat of poor weather; high in the hills, the group are exposed and vulnerable when the weather takes a turn and that sense of threat seems to play into Thomas’ existential crisis very nicely.
Asking big questions with wit and great character, Black Men Walking is an important new work. Testament toys with perceptions of identity here not just through ‘blackness’ or ‘whiteness’, but also through regional identities as well as ancestral links and cultural ties. Perhaps the most impressive thing about this new play is Testament’s planting of political issues within the dialogue with an authenticity many would struggle to capture. The issues are loud, and they catch your ear – but they’re inquisitive before they are accusatory and they are illuminating before they darken the mood. That’s not to say that the questions don’t challenge and demand our thought – I think this production is one of the most thought-provoking that I’ve seen in a while. It’s a well crafted piece of theatre exploring great ground in new ways and it’s absolutely worth seeing. We need more stories like this on our stages, for sure.