Writer/Musical Director: Testament
Director: Dawn Walton
Designer: Simon Kenny
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
Black Men Walking, now on an extended tour by Eclipse Theatre Company, begins with an excellent idea and is blessed with a quartet of first-class performances, but the script sometimes fails to integrate Testament’s ambitious concept into a coherent whole.
The play is dedicated to the Black Men’s Walking Group and uses three men’s monthly walk in the Peaks as the starting point for an exploration of identity: the individuals’ identity, to some extent, but mainly that of black Britishness. The men are given full unabbreviated, almost formal, traditionally British names – Thomas, Matthew and Richard – and only Richard has even semi-adult memories of another country, Ghana, which he left as a teenager: Thomas arrived in Sheffield as a child, Matthew was born in the Home Counties.
In walking, they gain freedom, but, as Thomas, the increasingly mystic historian, claims, they also re-claim a landscape that was always theirs: “We walked England before the English.” In truth, that claim is supported somewhat tenuously by the text, but the case of Severus, the Roman emperor who was born in Africa and died in York, is used effectively.
Black Men Walking shifts backwards and forwards in time as Thomas begins to lose his grip on everyday reality and then they encounter a more contemporary worldview in the shape of Ayeesha who graphically recounts the abuse a young black person can still be regularly subjected to. To the older men, the Peaks offer solace and peace; to Ayeesha the village pubs and shops also house hostility and incomprehension.
Testament’s script finds room for realistic dialogue, humour, poetry, choric chant and wordless song, the last two particularly well handled. The interface between the realistic and the symbolic can be rather uneasy, however, and the impact of the narrative is diluted.
For all that, Black Men Walking is powerful and impressive, not least because of the integrity of the three central performances. Tyrone Huggins, with a rather studied Yorkshire accent, is compelling as Thomas, the successful administrator who now feels that his life has been a failure and finds in his heritage both an escape and a message for the next generation. He conveys the strength and intelligence of the man whilst at the same time justifying Ayeesha’s description of him as “an old weird”. Trevor Laird is convincing, sympathetic and sometimes faintly absurd as Matthew, doctor, “southern softie”, on the surface untroubled by an awareness of prejudice. The perilous state of his marriage – to a white woman – is paralleled by Richard’s problems of how to react to the death of the father he hardly knew in Ghana. Tonderai Munyevu perfectly balances the emotions generated by his rejection as a child and the bouncy innocence of the devoted Trekkie just back from a Star Trek conference and full of it.
Dorcas Sebuyange has the thankless task of embodying the spiritual world, seen only by Thomas, but is suitably dynamic as the down-to-earth Ayeesha – and she sings well, too. Dawn Walton’s direction is economical and fluent, Simon Kenny’s set simple, suggesting the layering of rocks, just like the layering of the black experience in Britain.
Touring nationwide | Image: Contributed