Hampstead Theatre, 7 June – 10 July, 2021
Review by Patricia Cumper
The Death of a Black Man by Alfred Fagon was first produced at Hampstead Theatre by Foco Novo theatre company in 1975. It has now been revived there 46 years later. In the meantime, a lot has happened.
The three-character play is set in 1973, in the trendy London flat of the central character, Shakie. Young, ambitious, and determined to be even more of a financial success than he already is, Shakie’s life is thrown into disarray with the arrival of an older woman with whom he fathered a child, Jackie. Middle–class, moneyed and scornful of Shakie’s youth and background, Jackie lies her way into living in his flat, having left their child behind in Jamaica. The third character is Shakie’s best friend, wannabe music promoter, Africa–loving Stumpie. All three characters are Black Britons of Caribbean descent. As their various plans to improve their lives fail and Shakie learns of the death of his estranged musician father, discovered in a ditch in Birmingham, the three fall into a dysfunctional spiral that ends in tragedy when the men imprison Jackie and try to sell her off to the highest bidder.
A three-character play on one set with reams of dialogue is very much in the style of plays written in the 70s. Those parameters create complex and layered characters who are forced to interact in highly pressured situations. All three actors responded to the challenge of portraying that gradual evisceration with great skill and integrity. Particularly pleasing to my ear, and I confess I was born and grew up in Jamaica, was the way Toyin Omari-Kinch, who plays Stumpie, slid between speaking in Jamaican patois and using a more London accent, the kind of code switching that immigrant families are very familiar with. The choreographed transitions between scenes too were a joy to behold.
The set and lighting design both subtly add depth to the story being told by the actors. Particularly notable was the way in which the walls of the flat, initially presented as solid, became transparent, so that by the end of the play there was nowhere for any of the characters to hide from the unfolding tragedy.
The Death of A Black Man demonstrates that the director, Dawn Walton, is a master at her craft. The impulsiveness, the quickness of mind, the matters of class, race and gender that Fagon wrote about, with the same slightly manic energy with which he tackled just about every challenge in his life, leap out at you from the stage. Many of the misogynistic and racist attitudes are dated and I often found myself shocked by what I was hearing. But Walton has navigated her way through these to reveal the fragility and pain of all three characters. In that, she has – like Garfield Sobers, the famous West Indian cricketer, in Shakie’s oft-repeated opinion – ‘knocked it out of the park’.
Photo by Shaun Webb Design