Alfred Fagon’s spirit crackles and roars in this new production of his seminal 70s classic, The Death of a Black Man. Helmed by the legendary Dawn Walton, and realised by a trio of fresh faces, this controversial play lights up the Hampstead stage with burning passion; fiery and uncompromising, this is the theatre that audiences return for.
Carefully, Walton traces along the nuances that Fagon carves into his script: the ironies and oxymorons that define both his plays and the lived experiences of minorities in the 70s. The 28-year-old (Natalie Simpson) who accuses the 15-year-old she slept with of being a rapist but nevertheless wants to live with; the businessman (Nickcolia King-N’da) who imports ‘African Chairs’ from Yorkshire; the enterprising idealist (Toyin Omari-Kinch) who hates “middle class black people who fuck with White people” but still desperately wants to use them to make his millions. As these three argue and fight (and drink), their discussion crystallises on one idea: in order to achieve their dreams, they need bold action. Far bolder than you’d ever expect.
However, these initial ironies and preconceived plans quickly devolve and descend into a smelting pot of surrealism. Metaphor is layered on top of metaphor, as the characters monologue poetic ideas of pain, purpose and necessary evil. After all, what should “the death of a black man” matter when the rest of the community is at stake?
In recent years, Fagon’s legacy has been tied to his eponymous prize: each year, the Alfred Fagon Award is given to the best new play by a Black British playwright of Caribbean or African descent, resident in the United Kingdom. Past winners include Roy Williams (Death of England) and Michaela Coel (Chewing Gum Dreams); Fagon’s name has helped lift up some of the UK’s finest talents.
Indeed, seemingly inspired by this legacy, every aspect of the production fires on all cylinders. From Richard Hammarton’s discombobulating sound design to Simon Kenny’s ever-evolving set-design, there is simply so much to praise. Code-switching, systemic injustice, xenophobia, sexism, even fetishisation; this production touches on it all, and it can only do so thanks to its incredible team.
Moreover, like any worthwhile dramatist, Fagon understands that half the action happens offstage: past actions, past failures, past revelations. His stage isn’t one for overcooked exposition or overwrought cliches, but of discussion, interrogation, debate and even violence. Realising this, Walton has once again cemented herself as one of the UK’s most thoughtful and impressive directors, breathing a contemporaneity into Fagon’s period piece without ever being didactic or heavy-handed; this is an expert at work, and it’s a marvel to experience.
At times, the production may feel gratuitous in it’s surrealism or perhaps even problematic in its evocations… but that’s simply part of the ride. Theatre is back, and The Death of a Black Man proves it’s taking no prisoners.
The Death of a Black Man is playing at the Hampstead Theatre until 10th July. For more information and tickets visit Hampstead Theatre’s website.