Writer: Alfred Fagon
Director: Dawn Walton
Continuing its much interrupted season of revivals of plays which premiered here, Hampstead Theatre looks back to 1975. At first glance, the chilling title of Alfred Fagon’s The Death of a Black Man suggests that the play’s themes could have been echoed in recent events. As it transpires, the title is misleading, but it still leads to the key questions for a modern audience: how much in society has changed in almost half a century and how much of what is depicted in the drama is still relevant today?
The time is 1973, the place is a smart flat in Chelsea’s Kings Road, owned by Shakie, a confident entrepreneur who struts around proudly in his flowery shirt and bell-bottom trousers. His age is 18. He is visited by ex-girlfriend Jackie, who comes from a comfortable middle class background and is the mother of a child fathered by Shakie when he was 15. She is 30. Third to arrive is Stumpie, Shakie’s friend who has plans to make it big in the music business and favours a revolutionary approach to righting historical injustices. He is 21. All three characters are British and black.
The ages and other character details are emphasised, but they play little part in the play’s slight narrative and it is unclear why Fagon thinks them so important. It seems illogical that Shakie could have achieved his status in life so young, but Nickcolia King-N’da gives him refreshing youthfulness even when his dialogue belies his demeanour. Natalie Simpson struggles to find depth in the underwritten role of Jackie, but there is a real sense of danger in Toyin Omari-Kinch’s Stumpie as he paces around the stage smouldering with aggression..
The first half of the play resembles early John Osborne, with characters debating the crumbling British nation and empire while taking the drama nowhere. Like Osborne, Fagon gives little prominence to feminist causes. We gather that racism is at the root of all the characters’ grievances and we observe that even the victims of racism are themselves driven into becoming racists.
The second half is altogether more dark and surreal. Shakie, having been let down in a business deal, turns to Stumpie’s radical ideas and the two men imprison the hapless Jackie with a view to selling her into slavery. Director Dawn Walton’s production is impassioned, but it does not unravel all the play’s mysteries and, when the three characters stand in a line and address the audience directly, it looks as if Walton is signalling defeat.
As to modern relevance, perhaps racism is like the coronavirus in that it mutates repeatedly over time. If so, the 1973 variant is different from the 2021 one, but the only certainties are that both variants are equally destructive and equally difficult to conquer.
Fagon’s writing is confrontational, confusing and often contradictory. If he gave 1975 audiences a severe jolt, the shock factor today, when at least the issues that he raises are discussed more openly, could be diminished. Still this remains a challenging play and, because it points to no prospect of resolution, it is also a deeply depressing one.
Runs until 10 July 2021