I wonder if The Death of a Black Man could be written today. It’s something of a historical piece of theatre, or at least a play of its time. That said, some of the views held by the likes of Stumpie (Toyin Omari-Kinch) still prevail as much now as they did in the 1970s. The living room setting of the play allows its characters to speak their minds in a way they might not in public. The room itself almost screams ‘Seventies’ in its yellow and terracotta paint on the walls, and there’s no breaking into the narrative gently when Jackie (Natalie Simpson) tells Shakie (Nicolia King-N’Da), the father of her child, bluntly, “You are getting ready to rape me”.
Please forgive this spoiler: he doesn’t. Being eighteen, there’s a youthful enthusiasm and ambition in Shakie. Jackie, thirty, is more world-weary. At first, Shakie’s ambitions seem, if not entirely credible, at least achievable, but his friend Stumpie (Toyin Omari-Kinch) puts forward a proposal to increase the profile of music from black artists. Shakie is eventually persuaded, but the resulting plans bring to mind Del Boy in Only Fools and Horses – they might as well have said, “This time, we’ll all be millionaires!” to each other, with everyone in the audience knowing full well that won’t be the case.
His entrepreneurial activity to date has, however, landed Shakie a flat in Chelsea, as well as an apparently inexhaustible supply of champagne. Frustration with the status quo with how the black community is treated spurs Shakie on to keep thinking of ways to maximise his income streams, though both he and Stumpie are very aware of the scale of the challenges they face: Enoch Powell (1912-1998) is name-checked more than once, and there are some good insights into what strategies would and wouldn’t realistically work in the ongoing pushback against racial prejudice and injustice.
Stumpie veers between unconfined elation and uncontrollable rage, while Jackie becomes a complex character by the end of the play, perhaps because (without giving too much away) she is a victim of circumstances, which take their toll on what was, at the start, a bold, confident and forthright person. Jackie is right to point out that the boys (for that is what they are, not quite men) are, through one of their most outlandish proposals, attempting to restart the slave trade. None of the characters are particularly likeable, and I wonder how unpalatable the blatant misogyny would have been a generation ago when this play premiered at Hampstead Theatre in 1975. People are, quite rightly, less accepting of it now, which increases the shock factor for this 2021 production.
Quite remarkably, Shakie and Stumpie interchange between a London accent – more ‘mockney’ than Cockney – and a West Indies accent, seemingly effortlessly. The use of a rotary phone, making the audience wait until the whole number had been dialled, in silence, was a moment of comic relief from the relatively heavy storyline. It’s certainly an ambitious play, and one wonders if it attempts to achieve too much in one evening, grappling with issues as diverse as political structures, social mobility (or, rather, the lack thereof) and family tragedy (yes, the play’s title is a bit of a giveaway on that point).
It wasn’t difficult to maintain interest throughout, and the production’s small cast is nothing short of brilliant. That a play set in 1973 still resonates today is indicative of the play being ahead of its time as well as a somewhat brutal reminder of how much work still needs to be done with regards to racial (and class, and gender) inequality. A perceptive and passionate production.
Review by Chris Omaweng
At least I am my own boss. No regrets. I choose what I do. I am lucky.
Nickcolia King-N’da, Natalie Simpson and Toyin Omari-Kinch perform in this new production which originally premiered at the theatre in 1975. 46 years on, this rare revival from the Black British playwriting canon, raises many of the same questions we face today surrounding identity, capitalism and sexual politics.
The Death of a Black Man will be Dawn Walton’s directorial debut at Hampstead Theatre. Her most recent productions include The Gift (Theatre Royal Stratford East), Red Dust Road (National Theatre of Scotland) and Black Men Walking (Royal Court).
Dawn Walton will be joined by designer Simon Kenny, lighting designer Johanna Town, sound designer Richard Hammarton, composer Duramaney Kamara, Movement Director Rachael Nanyonjo, Assistant Director Nkechinyere Nwobani-Akanwo and Voice and Dialect Coach Hazel Holder.
THE DEATH OF A BLACK MAN LISTINGS INFO
A Hampstead Theatre Original
THE DEATH OF A BLACK MAN
Playwright Alfred Fagon
Director Dawn Walton
Designer Simon Kenny
Lighting Designer Jo Town
Sound Designer Richard Hammarton
Composer Duramaney Kamara
Movement Director Rachael Nanyonjo
Assistant Director Nkechinyere Nwobani-Akanwo
Voice and DialectCoach Hazel Holder
Dates: Friday 28 May– Saturday 10 July 2021