Three men from Sheffield set out to experience the freedom and respite afforded by a walk in ‘God’s own country’. Nothing surprising there. Except that these are members of a black men’s walking group and this walk is also an exploration of identity that goes well beyond the Yorkshire countryside. It is an opportunity to consider what it means to be black and British, as well as to assert an historical connection with the land – a connection that has been eclipsed for centuries.
The walkers represent three generations, with different backgrounds and very different motivations for undertaking the walk. Thomas (Tyrone Huggins), the oldest, came to the UK as a child. He started life with a passion for history and a desire to change the world but is now coming to the end of an unremarkable career, and is in cognitive decline. Haunted by the black ancestors who walked these English paths before them, he revives the stories that have long been forgotten: from the first African Roman Emperor to the 17th century merchant who was given the keys to the city of York. Matthew (Trevor Laird) was born in Hertfordshire to Jamaican parents and is now a well assimilated middle-aged, middle-class doctor, unhappily married to a white wife with whom he is in constant, fraught text contact. For him, the monthly walk is an opportunity to ‘be myself’ – which is ironic, because he seems to have lost touch with his cultural roots. And Richard (Tonderai Munyevu) – a computer geek and Star Trek fanatic in his early 40s – moved here from Ghana fifteen years ago and is walking off grief and anger at the death of a father who never really cared about him.
For all their differences, these men have one experience in common: the racism of those who see only the colour of their skin and treat them as ‘others’ to be feared, rejected, bullied or mocked. We hear about ‘the nod’ that is shared between black men – a nod of recognition that, however rich and diverse their lives and characters, they can and will be reduced to that one characteristic. However, they have begun to notice that younger black men do not do ‘the nod’ – so maybe things are changing? This optimistic possibility is challenged when Thomas, Matthew and Richard encounter a young woman – Ayeesha (Dorcas Sebuyange). – who has her own shocking tale to tell.
Both the writing and the staging of the piece take a potentially straightforward drama into intriguing magical realist territory, linking the walkers with the black ancestral spirits who trail-blazed these paths. The set appears to be naturalistic – a grassy strip complete with Yorkshire millstones. And yet, there is a grey, translucent screen in the centre, behind which we catch glimpses of an ancestral apparition that Thomas is determined to follow. Then, in some lovely moments of physical theatre, the apparition emerges to join Thomas in forming some of the obstacles and stiles that the men traverse. Meanwhile, conversations about local black history, football and families develop into reflections on their roots and who they have become. And as the walk progresses, literal and metaphorical mists swirl all around them.
There is always a concern in plays that address political issues that the audience will feel ‘lectured’ and the characters become merely plot devices – mouthpieces for particular points of view. There are moments when Black Men Walking falls into this trap – principally when the historical connections are made somewhat repetitively. However, it manages to avoid being simplistically didactic because the characters are sufficiently well drawn and engaging to convey the complexity of issues of heritage and experience and to highlight the jigsaw nature of identity.
Black Men Walking is part of Eclipse Theatre’s project to foreground black British stories. It is an ambitious and multi-layered piece with some piercing and poetic writing (by Testament, aka Andy Brooks) and evocative direction (by Dawn Walton). With sensitivity to the diverse experiences of black men and women in Britain, it prompts us to consider what it means to ‘belong’. And it is to be thoroughly commended for raising more questions than it answers.