Black Men Walking review – rap, race and rambling hit peak resonance

This is that rare thing: a truly original piece of theatre, innovative in both form and content. It is the work of Testament, a Yorkshire-based rapper, beatboxer and theatre-maker, and is presented by Revolution Mix, part of Eclipse, dedicated to unearthing untapped stories. This show certainly does that in that it is about a black men’s walking group and makes exhilarating use of prose, poetry and rap to explore both the resonances of history and the racism of the present.

Testament presents us with three diverse figures out for a weekend walk through the Peak District. The Sheffield-based Thomas, who left the Caribbean as a boy, is disillusioned with his dead-end, desk-bound job and the dispersal of his grownup family. Matthew is a middle-class Barnsley doctor of Jamaican heritage with a troubled marriage. Richard, meanwhile, is a Ghanaian computer-programmer with a passion for Star Trek.

Makes exhilarating use of prose, poetry and rap: Black Men Walking. Photograph: Tristram Kenton for the Guardian

Thomas is the most mystical in that he claims: “We walk the line of our ancestors! We walk our history,” while Matthew seems mainly concerned to get away from domestic pressures. But for all three men the monthly walk is a way, in a casually hostile world, of re-affirming their identity. Any fear that the play will lapse into po-faced earnestness is countered by Testament’s witty introduction of a fourth character: a 19-year-old rapper, Ayeesha, who has taken to the mist-wreathed hills to escape the racist insults she has suffered in an inner-city chicken shop. Ayeesha sceptically dismisses the three walkers as “posh boy, trekkie and old man weirdo”, points out their exclusion of women and suggests their fascination with black history is a way of making up for their political impotence. Yet, when the walkers find themselves in trouble, it is Ayeesha who acquires superhuman powers.

The climax is a bit too fantastical for my taste, but the brilliance of the piece lies in its ability to play with form while saying a lot about Britain today. Testament skips easily between naturalistic prose, choral chants and lyrical speech as ancestral voices remind us that since the Roman invasion, and even beyond, we have been a racially mixed country. But the play is at its strongest when it deals with who we are now: it covers everything from the habitual nod that black people of a certain generation once gave each other, to Ayeesha’s shock at being subjected to open abuse. The line that really resonates, however, is Thomas’s pained cry of: “How long do we have to be here to be English?”

Dawn Walton directs ingeniously, Lee Curran’s lighting conveys the creeping menace of the hilltop mist and the four actors are all excellent. Tyrone Huggins as the venerable Thomas, Trevor Laird as the anxious medico, Tonderai Munyevu as the switched-on techie and Dorcas Sebuyange as the realistic rapper feel like an ensemble made up of individual voices. Mixing poetry and politics, this is a stirring piece that suggests there is no situation that cannot be changed.

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