Review: Black Men Walking, Stephen Joseph Theatre

What do you think of when you think of walking? Most commonly you might picture white people. These tend to be the people on the Mountain Warehouse adverts, the British middle class taking to the countryside. What is so brilliant about Black Men Walking is that it redefines what we assume when we say ‘British’, as well as how we interact with our landscapes and history. In many ways it is a battle cry against anyone who sees a person of colour and says, “Go back to your own country”. It stands against racism and asserts: we have always been here, we are British, we are also black.

The words and musicality brought to the stage in Testament’s writing is innovative in many ways. It skirts so close to being disjointed. As an audience, we watch as the onstage action veers between spoken word stories from history and the very modern interactions between the three walkers and the girl they meet on the hillside. Testament works with Dawn Walton’s direction to make each part unfold in unity. The history vibrates through the present day narrative. The theatre becomes a sounding board of echoes and evocations.

This form of storytelling, where past and present melds together so cohesively, would be nothing without the work of the design team. Adrienne Quartly’s sound design takes Testament’s message and makes it feel as though it is reverberating through the earth. It is all-encompassing and thrilling. The overall look of the show is a testament to the ingenuity of Simon Kenny’s design. Much like the script, the set places the show in the past and present, half futuristic screen and half ancient landscape, embedded with millstones and plant-life. The true star of this show, however, is Lee Curran‘s lighting design. Deftly, he gives depth to the landscape, summons fog and fire from the hills, allows people to appear as if from nowhere. The atmosphere of the show is entirely summoned from Curran’s lights.

The ensemble of actors (Ben Onwukwe, Patrick Regis, Tonderai Munyevu and Dorcas Sebuyange) provide dexterous and multi-faceted performances. Under the careful hand of Steve Medlin’s movement direction, they shift from character to orator. Perfectly defined individuals exploring the wilderness become Roman leaders or Yorkshire businessmen. Backpacks become swords and words become history. It is truly stunning to behold.

Overall, Black Men Walking is an extraordinary piece of theatre. It is physical and lyrical, fully inhabiting the theatrical form and the emotional journey it portrays. While it may be coming to the end of its current tour, I daresay this play has made its mark on modern theatre just as surely as these walkers made their mark on the Yorkshire landscape.

Black Men Walking played the Stephen Joseph Theatre until 16 November. For more information, visit the Eclipse Theatre website.