REVIEW: BLACK MEN WALKING

COUNTRY WALKING magazine reviews the funny, daring and poignant play that is setting the UK theatre scene alight...

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We walk this land
The dales
The moors
The peaks
The vale
Dark summits
Orphaned valleys
Hidden gorges

Black Men Walking is an astonishing piece of theatre. It’s about many things: race memory, friendship, being British and black, casual racism, loneliness, ageing, disconnection. It’s about Star Trek and Sheffield Wednesday and Kit Kats. But it’s also – absolutely and joyously – about walking.

In the close confines of studio-size theatres around the country, you will join hikers Thomas, Matthew and Richard as they set out on their monthly walk together. Out from the clutter and clamour of Sheffield they go, up into the wilder quarters of the Peak District. A simple set is all the backdrop they need, with a back wall representing the strata of both rock and time, and a few millstones littering the stage just as they do on the ground beneath Stanage Edge.

They are men at very different junctions of their lives, but united by a love of walking and a lifetime of the Black British experience. Thomas, the eldest and the trusted leader, is the son of a Sheffield steelworker. He wanted to better his prospects through education, but although his history degree has given him an acute – even paranormal – connection to his black ancestry, it hasn’t helped him rise above mid-level admin jobs in which he is still seen as an outsider.

Matthew is a GP with a world of middle class problems, including a wife who stole his heart at a Public Enemy gig but now feels disconnected from him. And Richard is a Ghanaian immigrant questioning his place in British – or any – society, but cheerfully sustained by his love of Star Trek and chocolate bars.

Together they walk, sing, chant, remember and occasionally argue. They consider themselves to be ‘the black in the White Rose’ and tell us they are ‘walking out our identity’. But they aren’t alone: as the weather closes in, Thomas knows they are surrounded by the ghosts of ‘the Ancestors’: black Britons who trod the paths of the Peak District in millennia past.

They encounter Septimius Severus, a Roman emperor who came from Africa who made York his northern capital, doing more to advance the cultural, social and technological progress of Yorkshire than many before or even since. They talk of John Moore, a successful black miller of the Middle Ages who commissioned many of the millstones hewn at Stanage Edge and bought the keys to the city of York with his wealth.

And then they meet Ayeesha, hip-hop MC, teenager and walking hand grenade, with a far less comfortable view of black Britishness than the older trio. She’s not only scornful of their social tessellation but of their walking habit. “Are you sure this isn’t just a fancy way to mess up your trainers?” she demands, questioning the point of it all. She forces them to wonder if black people are really ‘allowed’ in the countryside at all - and of course, why they have to be a black MEN'S walking group.

Together they walk, and considering the tiny space of the stage they occupy, the scope and scale of their journey is colossal.

To reveal more would be to spike the guns of this fascinating play. But what I really want to put across is how much a walker will get from it. The play is written by Testament – a rapper and beatboxer by background – and inspired by the real-life Sheffield-based Black Men’s Walking Group. And the attention to walking detail is exquisite. The play is geographically precise, taking in the moors above Grindleford, a long and ancient Roman road, and the lush hollows of Padley Gorge. And it goes further:

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We walk over the same waters
Across the Ouse!
The Rother!
The Ure!
The Aire!
Derwent!
Mouth open to foreign sons
Become freshwater

It’s geologically sharp too:

Walking upon stone
Quartz
Jet
Mica
Feldspar
Knuckles cracked white and ashy
Stones in the drywall
Millstones to the mill

The dialogue and songs are scintillating; rarely will you hear such lyricism applied to the art of going for a walk. Director Dawn Walton has clearly watched walkers walking, and Testament has researched his subject matter into minute depths: everything from Berghaus jackets to the importance of hydration gets a mention. Richard even wears mini-gaiters, an odd little corner of the gear world that’s so obscure I have no idea how the costume designer came across it.

But on top of that is the movement: the four cast members walk constantly, their yomping of miles suggested by subtle twitches and the hastening and lengthening of breath. You know when they’re struggling up a gritstone tor in the wind, and when they are just bimbling along a Roman road at bantering speed. There is never a sense you’re watching four actors miming a walk – you will be walking with them. That’s astonishing work from the show’s movement director, Steve Medlin.

(As an aside – the three male performers spend the entire show clad in full winter walking gear, including fleeces and insulators; they must roast under the hot lights of the theatre.)

Each of the performances is impeccable. Tyrone Huggins’ Thomas is a man at war with himself, between certainty and confusion, falling apart in his bid to map both the way to Padley Gorge and the meaning of his life. And he plays it beautifully, all loping gait, wild hands and pleading eyes.

Trevor Laird’s Matthew is affable and polite, always seeking the middle ground, until Ayeesha challenges his world-view and his life choices, at which point he bristles with repressed anger. And Tonderai Munyevu is fabulous as Richard. A lot of the show’s comedy comes from him but he is by no means just the comic relief. He is perhaps the most heart-on-sleeve character of the trio and Munyevu’s delicate vocal rhythms are just perfect for conveying his friendliness and frailty.

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But it’s perhaps Ayeesha who has the biggest impact of all. Young performer Dorcas Sebuyange is just unbelievably watchable, flitting from ghostly Ancestor to MC full of ’tude, fending off racist bullies in KFC and testing the beliefs and assumptions of all around her, but revealing vulnerability when her shields drop briefly. And, of course, walking like a good ’un – even if she is wearing glittery white sneakers.

And before I accidentally persuade you that this is all very heavy stuff, I should point out that quite a lot of the time, the show is laugh-out-loud funny.

But you’re probably not reading this for the drama criticism; you’re reading this because you’re interested in walking. And on that score, Black Men Walking delivers the most thoughtful exposition of what it is to go for a walk that you’re ever likely to see on a stage.

The blackness of the show is vital: it comes from Eclipse, Britain’s foremost black-led theatre company. But there are many others who will watch it from the point of view of ‘outsiders’ and find it resonating with them: gay and lesbian walkers, Islamic walkers, disabled walkers; walkers with mental health issues. All of them can come to Black Men Walking and feel very welcome – as indeed can any walker, whatever their background. Little wonder that the tour is selling out fast.

But from a walker’s point of view, the best compliment I can pay it is this. As I filed out afterwards into the foyer of the Nottingham Playhouse, I heard this or something like it from at least four fellow audience members, all in separate groups:

“It made me want to go for a walk, you know.”

Now that’s the power of theatre.

By Nick Hallissey, Country Walking Magazine
Photos courtesy of Eclipse Theatre

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BLACK MEN WALKING is on tour around the UK now.

8-10 March: Arnolfini, Bristol
16-17 March: Theatr Clwyd, Mold
21 March – 7 April: Royal Court Theatre, London
9-12 April: Crucible Theatre, Sheffield
18-21 April: Salisbury Playhouse
23-24 April: The North Wall, Oxford
26-28 April: Unity Theatre, Liverpool

www.eclipsetheatre.org.uk

THERE’S MORE: See the April issue of Country Walking (on sale 29th March) for an interview with director Dawn Walton.