Review of 'The Death of a Black Man' at the Hampstead Theatre
In 1975, The Death of a Black Man by Alfred Fogan made its premiere at the Hampstead Theatre. 46 years later, the darkly compelling drama makes a return to its Main House as part of an effort to remember, and celebrate, a range of plays from every era of Hampstead’s history. Directed by Dawn Walton and starring Natalie Simpson, Toyin Omari-Kinch and Nickcolia King-N’da, this show captures the trials and tribulations of young working class Black British citizens as they set out to carve a future for themselves and the limits to which they’ll go in order to succeed.
Credits: Marc Brenner
At the centre of the story is a flat in Chelsea, London where we meet Shakie, played by King-N’da, an 18-year old entrepreneur whose business of selling African art and handicraft items (which are actually sourced locally from Yorkshire) to unsuspecting white patrons is booming. At his flat, he’s joined by his ex-flame Jackie, played by Natalie Simpson, a 28-year old social worker at the local council whose long-standing gripe with Shakie about hiding his age from her when they were together is what informs much of their conflicted, forlorn relationship. Lastly we have Toyin Omari-Kinch who essays the role of Stumpie, a childhood friend of Shakie whose world travels have him convinced that the next big investment opportunity is in bringing authentic African music to the UK in an attempt to counter the immense cultural appropriation of Black music, arts and aesthetics around them.
Much of the action unfolds with the trio discussing issues of race, social inequity, imbalanced welfare, disappearing heritage and confused identities in a rapidly changing UK landscape, underscored by their personal conflicts and demons that threaten all the hard work they’ve done up till that point in their lives. The ‘death’ in the title alludes to the demise of Shakie’s father, a famous Black British jazz flute player, his willingness to play music to the patronage of white audiences in pubs around town which alienated Shakie to the point that he doesn’t even go to bury him. As the three characters search for ways to move past their current circumstances to a better life, things take a turn for worse. Between get-rich-quick schemes and ambitious business plans to mischievously contrived solutions and questionable intentions, the cost of a ‘better life’ comes at a deadly debt to those who desire it quickly.
The text by Alfred Fogan jumps between a multitude of narrative arcs and talking points, cleverly using the character’s personal relationships as a pathway to introduce complex, gruesome ideas for a cutthroat working class existence. While the language feels a bit outdated and jarring, it’s not at odds with the times it was written in. Walton’s direction allows for the actors to open up the text’s assertions to the audience in a free, fast-paced manner. Some staging choices feel a bit too ordinary as compared to the highly detailed production design, such as the scene where all characters address the audience directly, but this is not a shortcoming as it allows us to focus our full attention on the menacing words and intentions that are at play, almost Pinter-esque in the way they take the audience by a muted surprise. The performances are exceptional, in particular by Omari-Kinch whose Stumpie lurks on stage with a delicate, silent rage at the risk of an explosion at the slightest provocation. The set design by Simon Kenny is particularly captivating, moving from a well-embellished posh London flat in the first half to a stripped down, almost hollow structure in the second that underscores the characters’ transition from a dreamy, superficial conversations to a deeply urgent need to do whatever it takes to survive. A special mention also goes to the Hampstead Theatre’s administration and production team, whose efforts to make audiences feel safe after a much-interrupted season is visible throughout – from detailed communications about what to expect when you walk into the space to ushers displaying safety protocols through visual aids – this commitment is a wonderful example for other performance spaces re-opening in the summer.
To summarize, the Hampstead’s eclectic revival of the The Death of a Black Man invites you to peek inside the lives, dreams and insecurities of Black Britons at the brink of tenuous struggle not just for their future, but equally for their present circumstances.
The Death of A Black Man is running at the Hampstead Theatre till 10th July 2021. Learn more and book your tickets at https://www.hampsteadtheatre.com/
Reviewer: Gaurav Singh Nijjer
Reviewed: 3rd June 2021
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★