Black Men Walking
Eclipse Theatre Company and Royal Exchange Theatre
Royal Exchange Theatre
Written by Yorkshire-based rapper, beatboxer and theatre maker Testament, aka Andy Brooks, this production in the Studio is exactly what the title states, but with some resonances that try to dig a little deeper.
Up in the hills of the Peak District, a group of black men from Sheffield spend one day a month walking in the countryside, getting away from it all. More than that, they use it as an act of reclamation, reminding each other—and telling the audience—of the countless black lives that have gone before them in Yorkshire going back through the centuries to Roman times (one story ends by claiming it was an African who put the York into Yorkshire).
This is contrasted with the acts of racism with which they have come into contact in the past, which they now recount more with amusement than with anger, such as having insults and bananas thrown at them at football matches in the '80s, even by people they knew.
On this occasion, only three of the group have turned up, and they all have issues. Matthew (Trevor Laird), a doctor and "soft southerner", is constantly getting messages on his phone—he says from work but the suspicion is that there is something more domestic going on. Richard (Tonderai Munyevu), excited about the Star Trek convention from which he has just returned and the range of chocolate bars in the shop, has been asked to return to Ghana for the funeral of the father he never knew. While Thomas, the senior member of the group, is having memory lapses and seeing visions, sometimes personified as a black-clad African woman.
At the top of the mountain, they come across young Ayeesha (Dorcus Sebuyange), clearly not dressed for climbing hills, but Thomas believes her to be some kind of spirit who has come for him, which spooks her a bit. She ends up descending the hill with them, but counters their tales of deep Yorkshire ancestry with her own stories of casual and not-so-casual racism that she is still encountering now. She doesn't get how walking up hills can help.
The dialogue scenes are interspersed with chants, music and confessional monologues, some in verse. Simon Kenny's design of a hillside with symbolic layered rocks in the background and a screen that effectively frames some of the less realistic moments looks great.
I'm obviously not in a position to comment on how effectively it represents the experience of being black in Britain but, in front of the usual mainly white, middle-class Royal Exchange audiences, it felt like we were being instructed in what it was like, as the characters light-heartedly shared with one another what they all already knew for our benefit.
The plot rambles around as though seeking a clear direction even more than the characters, who themselves are rather thin, coming across more like points in an argument than real people.
However director Dawn Walton keeps everything moving swiftly along and there are some moments of real humour and an ending with a note of hope. While there's nothing really new or innovative here, it entertains effectively for an hour and a half and the messages it carries certainly bear repeating.
Reviewer: David Chadderton