De Botty Business

Benjamin Zephaniah
Hackney Empire and touring


I think this may be an instance of what academics, trying to carve out new subject areas for themselves, call 'applied theatre,' for it is theatre designed to do a specific job. Statistics show that men of Afro-Caribbean origin are three times more likely than white men to be diagnosed with prostate cancer. They are also less likely to get the targeted help and support they need, partly because they are less likely to regularly see a doctor. Noting this, the Prostate Cancer Charity launched a campaign to raise awareness of prostate cancer in Afro-Caribbean communities and, deciding to use it as one of its tools, commissioned this play from Benjamin Zephaniah.

His brief was to cover the symptoms and some of the issues of diagnosis and treatment that black men often find difficult to accept because of the machismo of their culture and, by the way, he had to make this very serious matter the subject of a comedy . They should be pleased: he has done all that, ticking all their boxes, but he has also done much more. He has made an engaging play that works well as a piece of theatre and, only at the very end, is you aware that it is supposed to pack a message, and then it is punched home hard.

It is set in the West Midlands where Marky (David Monteith) is now responsible for running his parents' barbershop and isn't doing quite as mom would like. She is very critical of his sassy assistant Takisha, played with lively Brummagem spirit by Irina Aggrey. This could easily have taken of as a play about generation differences but it changes direction when Mom and Daddy Maxwell come back from the doctor to say that after a blood test daddy has been asked to go for further tests. Still staying a family comedy, it now takes off on all the wild reactions of family and acquaintances to the idea of prostate cancer. It has great fun with their misconceptions and misunderstandings from what and where the prostrate is to zany treatments, from herbal remedies (from someone who has heard the gossip and thinks Mr Maxwell has constipation) to an expensive cure from a fake witch doctor from Milton Keynes.

The core of the comedy line is the idea of an RID - a rectal digital inspection. Such a bodily invasion is anathema to most Caribbean males and Zephaniah handles this with skill so that we can laugh at Maxwell's fear without laughing at the man for having it.

This is a heavily accented piece. I have a native familiarity with a Brummy accent but I lack the Caribbean ear needed to pick up all the jokes. Hackney's mainly black audience obviously did, despite unfortunate mikes on the set. I think most of these actors, and especially Cedric Duncan and the splendid Joan Hooley as the parents, were strong enough not to need artificial amplification.

From this one-performance premier in the wide spaces of Hackney Empire this production will be briefly touring to a number of much smaller venues and they certainly will not need them in these community centres where they will not only be taking their message to their target market but probably giving many of their audience an unaccustomed experience of theatre.

Tour dates: 10th March, Kuumba (Arts & Community Resource) Limited, St Paul's, Bristol; 11th March, Afro Caribbean Millennium Centre, Winson Green, Birmingham; 12th March, West Bromwich African Caribbean Resource Centre, West Bromwich; 13th March, The Austin Burke Memorial Centre, Leeds; 14th March, Kuumba Imani Millennium Centre, Liverpool.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

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