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Theatre Review Shouldering the burden of history

MAYER WAKEFIELD recommends a resonant play on the black British experience, then and now

Black Men Walking
Royal Court, London

POET, rapper, beatboxer and now theatre-maker — Testament is a man with many strings to his bow.

Encouraged by Eclipse Theatre's artistic director Dawn Walton — also the shrewdly adept director of this show — and inspired by David Olusoga's 2015 television series Black and British: A Forgotten History, he set about writing Black Men Walking by climbing the Peaks alongside a group of black men who climb them monthly to catch a break from their very different daily lives.

Exploring centuries of black British history from John Moore, a Freeman of the City of York in Tudor times, to one of Britain’s first black footballers Paul Canoville, the play is a stark reminder of both historical and current racial injustice in Britain.
But it's also a portrayal of hope and perseverance, located deep within the personal experiences of four superbly crafted characters.

“Posh boy, trekkie and old-man weirdo,” is how the final member of the ensemble, rapper Ayeesha (Dorcas Sebuyange) describes them. But Matthew (Trevor Laird), Richard (Tonderai Munyevu) and Thomas (Tyrone Huggins) have a lot more to them than that, as she soon discovers as they bond over hip-hop and history.

Initially, the three male actors appear to somewhat over-exaggerate their characterisations but, as the show unfolds, you begin to see real complexity in their eccentricities. Full of both wisdom and fear, Huggins is particularly impressive as the ageing leader.

All have very different experiences of life in Britain and, as Testament leads us on a walking tour through those experiences, he manages to craft a work of unassuming depth which speaks both for, and to, multiple generations. He conjures a powerful rhythm which ebbs and flows like the Peaks themselves, switching from prose to poetry to rap with an assured fluidity.

Early on, a weary Thomas wonders whether history's only purpose is perhaps “to let you know when you're consigned to it.” Black Men Walking proves there is far more to it than that.

Runs until April 7, box office: royalcourttheatre.com

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