It was inevitable that race would be put under the microscope in Eclipse Theatre Company and Royal Exchange Theatre co-production of Black Men Walking, which started its national tour at the Royal Exchange this week. Written by Testament, it’s a story of Thomas, Matthew and Richard, three black men, who walk the first Saturday of every month. They walk and they talk and inevitably the subject of their skin colour dominates their conversations. Yet, it is more than that, it’s a story of shining a light on Britain’s forgotten black history.
It is inspired by a real walking group for black men in Sheffield, who ramble around the Peak District, and where director Dawn Walton was suddenly hit upon the thought:
“My head was suddenly thinking about Septimius walking on the same road that I was walking thousands of years later, and this potent idea grew into Black Men Walking.”
Walton then fortuitously it would seem met the writer of this play, Testament (rapper, beatboxer and theatre maker) in a library in Leeds whilst he was performing and the rest, as they say, is history. Testament took Walton’s idea and turned it into a multi layered play about the lives of three ordinary men, who embark on their usual walk, but in doing so must confront not only their own demons but also that of the hills.
Intertwining the turmoil within the group, we are taken on a historical journey through Britain’s black past. We are told of the Libyan born Roman emperor Septimius Severus, who marched through the same paths that Thomas, Matthew and Richard walk today. We get to know about John Moore, who was given the freedom of the city of York in 17th century and Pablo Fanque, a Victorian circus owner amongst others.
The complexities of race do not end there. This isn’t just three black characters that have similar issues, indeed their heritage and what that brings is wide ranging. We have Trevor Laird playing Matthew, the doctor who has married outside of his ethnicity, we have Tonderai Munyevu playing Richard, the Ghanaian, who came over to Britain and has unresolved issues with his father, and Tyrone Hughes playing Thomas, who feels that his generation has been left behind. We also meet Ayeesha, played by Dorcas Sebuyange – who recounts of a racist incident she had been subjected to.
The play’s ambitions continue to be pushed. Whilst the set design has the hint of the countryside, there is a partially opaque screen at the back that is used quite cleverly. Then there’s a fusion of styles too. Dance and song are used to give it a surreal effect. Sebuyange uses the medium of rap to wax lyrical at key moments in the production. Whilst the trio of hikers rely on good old fashioned acting to convey the unfolding drama
It is only until after the show had finished – and reflecting on what I had seen – that it hit me how much to the show there was than just the stories of Thomas, Matthew and Richard walking the hills with their personal baggage. And this is probably the play’s undoing, that it tries to too hard to be too many things. The need to understand Britain’s black heritage, to comprehend the complexities to the problems that seem to weigh on Richard, Matthew and Thomas, to empathise that even today people like Ayeesha are called racists terms in public, all leads to a messy finale where everything is resolved somewhat abruptly.
Indeed, what surprised me was that for all it’s unconventionality in styles, narratives and themes that in the end the plot was perhaps more conventional than I had been lead to believe.
Whilst the play itself may not quite pull off the exposition into race that it so wanted, there is much to laud about this production. Part of Revolution Mix, a movement spearheaded by Eclipse Theatre, it aims to bring the largest ever national delivery of Black British stories produced and performed in regional theatres. That kind of diversity should be encouraged in an art form that has often had allegations of being too elitist.
In Black Men Walking, the first of those Black British stories, they may have been guilty of being too ambitious, but that has not stopped them from producing an entertaining play. The real joy is the affability and relationships harnessed between the main cast and in particular Trevor Laird, Tonderai Munyevu and Tyrone Hughes.
Their interactions are quite heartwarming and give the play it’s heart and soul. You do not doubt that these men have somehow bonded over the years through being forced to come together over a number of hours each month in the pursuit of a shared passion. The conversations surrounding the banality of life, of which chocolate bar to have, the Star Trek conventions, the chit chat over how Ghanaian one looks, or the abuse meted out at football matches in the 80s, all seem entrenched in reality.
It is watching them as they walk and talk, laugh and cry, sharing their hopes and their fears that makes this a show that everyone will be talking about!
Verdict: An ambitious and thought provoking play that aims to put race under the spotlight. We are taken on a journey through the hills, three black men with personal issues and a history lesson on Britain’s forgotten past.
What: Black Men Walking
Where: Royal Exchange Theatre
When: 22nd January 2018