Director: Dawn Walter
Reviewer: John Kennedy
‘And specially, from every shires ende
Of England, to the [Peaks] they wende,
The holy blisful [diaspora] for to seke,’
Seems that yon Chaucer chap saw something like this a-coming long time ago, ‘appen. To pass the time, to escape it, three disparate black men go hill-walking. It is a time to talk the walk, to walk the talk. ‘We Walk for Freedom!’ is their marching mantra. Theirs is the rhythm of the feet, following the echoing foot-print sound of the eternal heartbeat of the soul seeking its ancestral ground. Writer, Testament, weaves ancient and modern spiritual Black consciousness within a tapestry of humane, elegiac vitality and prescience tempered with non-condescending, regional ‘e by gum’ witty panache.
For the younger DJ, apprentice jeweller, Ayeesha (Dorcas Sebuyange), her Peak District, near grief-encounter with the black men walking, stands her in good stead as she eventually assimilates their love of ancestral heritage. ‘Oi! nig-nog. Why don’t you go back home where you belong?’ Baits the drunken racist in the chicken-wing shop. ‘Actually, mate, I am ‘ome, here, in Yorkshire. My forefathers were the free (not freed!) African Auxiliaries salaried (literally) to the Roman Emperor.’ Ayeesha further has something to tell the fast-food, slow-brained moron about those immigrant Anglo Saxons coming over here – ruining proper British neighbourhoods.
Black Men Walking is intelligently crafted, wily, stealth-humour provocative and thoroughly attuned to its message. It proclaims but eschews proselytising. What begins as another ‘Get away from the tech’ buddy-bonding Peak trek sojourn soon begins to unravel as each character reveals his inner-gnawing goblins. Matthew, (Patrick Regis) is constantly either forlornly texting his prickly wife or, of more imminent practicality, chasing the latest weather forecasts – and, as an ominous metaphor for his marital and self-identity crises – they’re not good. Meanwhile, Star Trek obsessive Richard’s (Tonderai Munyevu) Ghanian family expect him to foot the expensive funeral of his estranged father. This isn’t quite going to be a walk in the National Park they were anticipating.
Their confidence in the hill-walking skills of the older Thomas, portrayed with millstone grit gravitas by Ben Onwukwe, rapidly wains as his diminishing navigation skills give way alt.rambling expositions prompted by ancestral dialogues with a very personal mist-manifested Brocken spectre. For Thomas, on his spiritual quest, bad weather’s for wusses.
The narrative driving their walking and talking spiritual ramblers’ quest for dignity and individual/race identity is related through a lexicon of contrary but ultimately unifying linguistic devices delivered in plain-verse, Greek Chorus, tribal chant, English/African regional dialects, Latin, DJ rap and street-patois.
Part pilgrims on the path to redemptive assimilation, part apposite philippic against those complacent enough to believe racial harmony is anywhere near enough yet to sing about, Black Men Walking is resilient and resourceful bristling with both anger and fervent optimism. A way-marker on the still uncharted landscapes of the Black British diaspora and a beacon of wisdom to counter the darkening, resurgent, cynical currents of populist antagonism, this is a most welcome allegory of a nascent true Brit grit. These Black Men Walking don’t put a foot wrong mapping-out a rich, hikers’ guide to a new reality. Black Men Walking at its Peak performance. These past two months alone have already seen two superb BAME themed productions blessing Brum’s boards, with the Award-bedecked touring The Barbershop Chronicles and the West Midlands incubated Rebel Music, both Chronicles and Black Men Walking focusing on Black male identity and mental health. Inclusive theatre at its finest, long may it continue.
Runs until: 31 October 2019 and on Tour Image: Ellie Kurttz