Review: Messiah, Stratford Circus Arts Centre

 “At some point you’ve got to decide if you’re afraid of me because I’m black or because I’m educated” is the searing accusation that Fred Hampton levels at the Chicago PD Sergeant who killed him. 

The disgraceful brutalisation and dehumanisation of black people by the police is extensively documented, extending back into the foundations of the Western world and incomprehensibly, continuing to this day. Messiah explores this issue and its implications on contemporary black rights movements through a retelling of the assassination of Fred Hampton, the proclaimed ‘Black Messiah’ of the Black Panther party. 

When first entering the auditorium, Fred Hampton (Shaq B. Grant) ushers us to our feet. We each raise our fist into the air and are led in a chant of ‘I am a revolutionary’. We are his followers. Throughout, Grant plays Hampton with poise, sensitivity and warmth. He is at once absolutely certain of his purpose, yet also a vulnerable young man, weighed down by the scale of his mission. He portrays Hampton as a charismatic and persuasive leader that makes his influence so easy to understand. 

Angelina Chudi plays Deborah Johnson, Fred’s heavily pregnant girlfriend, as the soothing balm for her lover’s fiery spirit. She is constant, ferocious and majestic. As she lovingly cradles her stomach she nurtures a legacy and the new generation of revolution. 

The plot alternates between the night before Chicago officers storm Hampton’s apartment and lay siege to the men and women inside, and a retrospective conversation between Hampton, Deborah, their friend O’Neill (Gerel Falconer) and the sergeant who led the raid.

It is striking to be led forwards and backwards in time. It imbues the action and the struggle for equality with timelessness. Just as Hampton leads us back and forth before his untimely death, we jump between then and now. It would be foolish to believe that the fight for black rights ended with the death of Dr King and there is no suggestion by the play’s end that the inherent prejudice that oppresses black communities has been consigned to the past. Because frankly, only a cursory examination of today’s headlines will show that it has not. 

Each of the four characters take turns narrating their version of events. History has always been written by the victors, the powerful, and the oppressors but to have both contradictory stories presented in unison is a powerful reminder that the ‘truth’ we accept and the objective truth seldom align. 

Lewis Hart has the unenviable task of portraying the racist police Sergeant, which he does with tremendous skill. He belligerently refuses to acknowledge his own privilege, imparts the same racist ideology into his son, and reveals his racism more overtly as the piece continues. 

The Sergeant alternately mocks and condemns the Panthers, calling them “children behaving like soldiers” but does not pause to question a society that forces them to assume this role.

Characters move across a minimal set where Hampton’s apartment is mapped out on the floor with white lines. A sinister red ‘X’ on the floor marks the place where he was killed. It is gut wrenching to watch Hampton and Deborah dancing joyfully together like any ordinary young couple in love, oblivious to the makeshift grave beneath their unsuspecting feet. 

This piece is a shining example of politically engaging theatre and is pertinently staged on the cusp of a national election. Despite a man behind me whispering a massive spoiler loud enough for my ancestors to hear him from the grave, this was thoroughly inspiring and a testament to the threat that educated masses pose to the prejudiced few.

Messiah is touring through 11 January. For more information and tickets, see the Bear Trap Theatre Company website.