Review: Black Men Walking @ Exeter Northcott

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this review do not represent those of the Magazine as a whole, they are an individual’s interpretation.

*** STARS

Undeniably it is extremely important to have diverse representation. I applaud any and all work by emerging artists from marginalised communities. Their experiences and perspectives are eye-opening and have to be a part of our theatre scene. With that in mind, however, in my opinion this production unfortunately misses the mark on representing the complex ideas which it desperately wants to put on stage.

In Black Men Walking, by Testament, three black men from different backgrounds come together every first weekend of the month and walk on the Yorkshire Dales, tracing the ancient Roman roads and exploring the land they belong to, but in which they are wrongly sometimes regarded as ‘Other’. We have Thomas, a History graduate who complains that his children are not as close to him as he would like; Matthew, a Jamaican surgeon with marital problems; and Richard, a Star Trek fanatic, originally from Ghana, who is seemingly the epitome of joy yet hides a tragic family life. Halfway through their walk, they encounter a young emerging rapper, Ayeesha, and welcome her into their group. They walk together in search of their identity, both as black and English. In 80-minutes, Eclipse Theatre Company attempts to navigate the complex genres of a four-person play, slam poetry and narrative symbolic storytelling.

The audience enters to find a female character miming planting seeds onto the green, curved floor. I was struck and moved by the use of fog: a physical representation of the spirit of this land they chose to explore and reclaim. The atmosphere deepens with creative use of sound and rhythm throughout. The female character, played by Dorcas Sebuyange, then moves in a deeply stylised way, resembling slow-motion running.  The character of Thomas, played with determination by Ben Onwuke, seems to see her as an apparition of sorts, a spirit of mother Earth, or the black ancestors who are part of the Yorkshire history and landscape. Thomas begins with monologues musing on history, but throughout the play fixates more on intangible ideas, losing connection with the other characters and the audience. This could have been fascinating to explore further, but it was sadly just presented and dropped. Tonderai Munyevu’s Richard is high energy and gained a few laughs, and there is character development in revelations about his relationship with his father. Patrick Regis completes the company as Matthew, the least developed of the three central characters.

The play’s problem is its disjointed nature. I found it hard to reconcile the moments of naturalistic dialogue with slam poetry and considerations of why the men are walking, especially when the transitions were unintentionally sharp. The dialogue was occasionally stiff, there were some weak character choices and at times confusing physical movement.  The integral part of the play, the walking, is extremely jarring, although it is understandably difficult to represent walking on stage while maintaining a sense of end-on presentation. There were moments where they used walking to explore the space, but when they were attempting naturalistic dialogue, their light, un-energetic lifting of their feet, was off-putting. It would also have been really interesting to see the stage itself change or develop during the performance, especially as the use of lighting was unimaginative.

Regardless of the issues highlighted above, the core of the show, the central idea, is strong, despite insufficient exploration or polish. It is certainly worth seeing for this reason and to experience a different perspective on black lives in Yorkshire, and England more generally. We need more stories like this.

Josip Martinčić

 

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