Black Men Walking is part of Revolution Mix, an initiative by Eclipse Theatre, which aims to place the Black narrative at the heart of British Theatre, focusing on the aspects of Black British history that deviate from the tired and touted narratives surrounding slavery, immigration and gang crime.
Working with 15 Black writers and 150 Black actors, designers and musicians, Revolution Mix aims to be a uniquely representative body of work, and Black Men Walking is the flagship national Revolution Mix tour.
Written by rapper and theatre-maker Testament and skilfully directed by Dawn Walton, the play is joyfully ambitious, blending stories about everyday racism with dramatic asides about Black history, poetry and spoken word performances and timely humour.
Black Men Walking is a piece inspired by a real-life walking group for Black men in Yorkshire, which deftly explores the breadth of the Black experience in Britain. Set against the backdrop of the Peak District, the cast walks the paths trodden hundreds of years ago by their Black ancestors, “before the English”.
Our characters are: history-obsessed Thomas (Tyrone Huggins) who came to the UK as a child, and is now nearing the end of his career in a dead-end job; Matthew (Trevor Laird), a British-born GP with marital issues; and techie and Trekkie Richard (Tonderai Munyevu) who hails from Ghana, has lived in the UK for 15 years and is struggling with the loss of his father.
The men walk, talking about their lives. As the weather takes a turn for the worse, they’re caught in a snowstorm, and meet a young rapper called Ayeesha (Dorcas Sebuyange), who is finding it difficult to come to terms with the casual racism levelled at her by her peers.
The play challenges misconceptions about race and racism and there is no shying away from the abuse commonly aimed at Black people in Britain. From calls of “Where are you from?” and “Go back!” to the use of racial slurs, and the discussion of the micro-aggressions Black people live with, Black Men Walking tackles the subject head-on, making the mostly white audience at the Royal Exchange Theatre more than a little uncomfortable. The comedic timing is fantastic, lightening the tone of the piece every time the play ventures into darker territory.
As the audience is asked, “How long do we need to be here before we’re considered British?” I’m made aware that the older white woman sat next to me is not having any of it, eliciting dramatic sighs and a tutting sound whenever race is mentioned. It’s an unwelcome but poignant reminder that this play is important, that it’s integral and that it’s forcing us to challenge what we know about the history of Black people in Britain.
Black Men Walking played at Royal Exchange Theatre until 3 February and is touring various venues until 28 April 2018
Photo: Tristram Kenton