Royal Exchange, Manchester.
22 January 2018.
“We walk“. Thomas, Matthew and Richard walk for exercise, to get outdoors, for fresh air, to have a break from work and family responsibilities but they also walk together, with purpose, as black men. Eclipse Theatre’s new play follows these three men as they head out on their regular walk across the Peak District.
Home to Kinder Scout, where in a historic act of protest, a mass trespass secured rights of access to the countryside, the Peak District seems an entirely fitting location for a contemporary exploration of walking as a political act. The script lays its roots deep in to the land, referencing water courses, peaks and even the geology beneath the soil. There’s no doubting this is Yorkshire either, as the walkers approach the border of God’s own country, Thomas notes disdainfully that they’re moving close to “foreign territory”.
The many layers of the walkers’ lives are gradually exposed – impacted and fractured like the rock face that acts as the show’s backdrop. Bluff Yorkshire man Thomas seemingly struggling with his advancing years, well-spoken doctor Matthew (Trevor Laird) constantly interrupted by texts from his wife and quirky programmer Richard with his love of sci-fi. As they walk, talk and notice the natural world they also ponder daily life, reflecting on identity, work, sense of belonging, fathers and sons, marriages and Star Trek…
As they stride onward, the weather gradually worsens and while the ground beneath their feet may feel reassuringly solid, time becomes increasingly fluid. Walk leader Thomas (Tyrone Huggins) shares stories of local black history – of a Roman emperor marching across the countryside, a wealthy 4th century bangle-wearing lady and a successful merchant given the freedom of the city of York in 1687. This neglected heritage is revealed to us not just through his words but through historic characters seamlessly wandering apparition-like beside the men or with the sudden sounds of chanting centurions. An opaque screen centre-stage is used to create distinction between scenes of ‘then and now’ but perhaps also symbolises a portal open across the centuries.
This isn’t just about unearthing ancient history, it’s also a record of more recent experiences as characters reflect back on changes in society in their life-times. History’s value and relevance are also considered as the play moves forward. Thomas mournfully recounts how his children seemingly have no interest in his detailed knowledge of black history.
An encounter with a young woman, Ayeesha, may begin in unlikely circumstances but that’s soon forgotten as she adjusts the play’s compass and brings some lively youthful disruption to the cosy brotherhood. To her eyes, at first, they are a “Black Last of the Summer Wine…. Posh Boy, Techie and Old Man Weirdo”. Her arrival allows the play to bring a cross-generational perspective and to question how far things have actually changed for Black Britons over recent years.
From Thomas’s uncomfortable experiences of going to football matches as a younger man through to the looks the group get from other walkers, the play captures racism’s enduring and insidious presence as well as its impacts. Spotting a police car on the moors, the three mature professional middle-class men visibly freeze, ready to greet the car’s occupants with fixed smiles, braced for the worst. A powerful soliloquy from Ayeesha tracks her rollercoaster response to an incident of racist abuse – from fierce public defiance through to lonely tears of frustration.
By creating four characters so different in temperament, outlook and background the play defies stereotypes and celebrates Black British identity as rich and multi-layered. It also plays with the subtleties of individual identities. Thomas poking fun at soft southerner Matthew. Richard finely tuned to the ethnic differences of his fellow Ghanaians. GP Matthew and MC Ayeesha’s shared love for the music of Public Enemy.
As it progresses, there is an increasingly eerie sense of being lost, adrift, as if “walking in a cloud” but Testament’s concise, lyrical dialogue (keenly alert to the rhythms of dialect) keeps things anchored firmly down-to-earth throughout. The inter-play between the four characters is beautifully done and the actors make us care about them despite the sometimes contrived nature of proceedings. Tonderai Munyevu as trekkie Richard is especially good, bringing welcome flashes of good humour to the chilly moors. As Ayeesha, Dorcas Sebuyange is a wonderfully rebellious presence.
The production’s stylised presentation of walking as something done collectively, in formation and in unison serves to underline the language used repeatedly throughout to emphasise its transformative power. As the play progresses, the simple act of moving forward through the landscape becomes an act of belonging, of protest, of ownership, of resilience and of pride.
On many levels, director Dawn Walton and writer Testament are depicting much more than a powerful journey of discovery. The space the characters assert their right to is not just the land on which they walk but also the stage on which they are standing. As such ‘Black Men Walking‘ is the perfect trail-blazer for Eclipse’s plans to deliver an ambitious programme of Black British story-telling in theatres across the country.
Images by Tristram Kenton