Manchester Theatre Awards

> Independent informed reviews by the region’s most experienced critics

Black Men Walking

Testament
Eclipse Theatre and Royal Exchange Theatre
Royal Exchange, Manchester
18 January 2018 to 03 February 2018

Every month three friends walk through the Yorkshire Peak district. It is a way of relaxing and escaping from their problems. Matthew (Trevor Laird) is having marital problems. Richard (Tonderai Munyevu) is obsessing about the inequity of his tribal heritage in Africa and is also, tragically, a fan of Star Trek. Thomas (Tyrone Huggins) is the leader of, and guide for, the group and effectively a human compass which is a real problem as he seems to be suffering from the onset of dementia. As the group walk they chat about their experiences as black men in Britain and historian Thomas offers some context with stories about significant black figures from the past. But an increasingly confused Thomas is moving beyond fixating on a spectral figure and has started to welcome the release of death and leads the group into an increasingly dangerous situation which becomes even more complex when Ayeesha (Dorcas Sebuyange) emerges from the gathering mist.

One might as well acknowledge that the cast of Black Men Walking are not playing credible people. Ayeesha, who proclaims that black people are more comfortable in an urban setting than the countryside, is doing Tai Chi in the Yorkshire Dales in inclement weather wearing only a vest and track suit bottoms. Rather, the characters articulate viewpoints, offer information and serve as a chorus. It is an approach that might seem artificial if the cast and director were not so successful at creating an illusionary, delirious atmosphere in which anything can happen.

The approach raises concerns that the play is going to be a thinly-veiled polemic or a lecture but this situation never arises. Like Simon Kenny’s simple but effective stage design – a section of rock that runs around the stage - Black Men Walking has layers.

The play is crammed with details, opinions and disturbing viewpoints. After encountering a policeman the friends automatically discuss if he was polite and friendly leading to the uncomfortable but undeniable realisation that they have learned to treat all authority figures with suspicion and that prejudice is displayed towards all classes and age groups not just the young and poor. The defences against prejudice – the tribal response of automatically greeting another member of your own race and assuming you are alike – are mentioned in an almost embarrassed fashion.

Author Testament (Andy Brooks) does not limit his script to race issues. Ayeesha, being of a younger generation, complains that the willingness of older people to tolerate prejudice, on the grounds that things are not as bad as they once were, has ensured that the problem has continued to affect the young.

As well as being an author Testament is a rapper and beatboxer and these influences are apparent in the play in which situations are evoked by sound as well as by words. A Roman encampment is brought to life by the chanting of the characters rather than using props.

The characters cope with extreme situations with dignity and this approach is reflected in Dawn Walton’s direction. Rather than set a confrontational mood Walton opts for an atmosphere of pride and defiance in the face of adversity. The characters regularly form a chorus proudly re-affirming their purpose and relating themselves to those who have gone before and in whose footsteps they walk.

Black Men Walking is a dense and demanding play but one that is exhilarating and absorbing.

Reviewer: David Cunningham

Comments

Comment by David Chadderton

I can't say I found the play particularly dense or demanding, but it was certainly enjoyable and, up to a point, informative. David has touched on the thinness of the character development, and I would say the same about the plot, which, like the walkers, takes a long time to not get very far and, unlike their progress through the foggy Peaks, the twists and turns ahead can be seen long before they arrive.

That's not to say that the play doesn't have anything important to say, even if the polemical aspects are rather simplistically argued, and the fact that there is nothing new in these arguments says something in itself. It's also quite entertaining, with some lough-out-loud humour, atmospheric moments and, as David says, a striking set design.

There are good performances, although some seem a bit hesitant at times—perhaps script changes are still being made this early in the tour—with Tonderai Munyevu particularly standing out for me as the jolly chocolate-loving Trekkie with a darker secret that comes out in one of the more intense scenes.

As a protest or statement of black strength, it's a world away from Public Enemy, the intensely political hip-hop band mentioned frequently in the play; more of a black Last of the Summer Wine, the long-running sitcom that is also name-checked, but with a bit more political awareness and a few more jokes.