The Death of a Black Man at Hampstead Theatre review - incendiary, if somewhat dated

·3-min read
 (handout)
(handout)

This neglected play by Alfred Fagon – returning to Hampstead Theatre after its 1975 premiere - is an anarchic, chaotic exploration of the lives of black Britons in post-60s, pre-punk King’s Road. The play’s fluid approach to character and narrative made it hugely radical in its day: those qualities, and some of its attitudes, make it hugely challenging now.

But my God, the writing is vivid, and Dawn Walton’s production compelling. She draws mercurial performances from her two male actors. That the only female character is a pliable accessory to them is part of the play’s argument, and part of its problem. The death mentioned in the title, by the way, is not a brutal George Floyd-style killing, but the humble departure and more subtle erasure of a pioneering Jamaican jazzman, the main character’s father.

This is Shakie (Nickcolia King-N’Da), an 18-year-old wheeler-dealer who’s already made a fortune selling marked-up African furniture to wealthy Chelsea-ites. He’s visited by Jackie (Natalie Simpson) the beautiful, 30-year-old woman he fathered a daughter with at 15; and by his friend Stumpie (Toyin Omari-Kinch), who dreams of importing authentic African music to Britain.

The two men spiral through get-rich-quick schemes to messianic back-to-Africa zeal and a kind of neo-colonial mindset where they reinvent slavery. This isn’t a spoiler – honest - as there isn’t really a plot, just a series of volatile, hypnotic moods that shift like a kaleidoscope. The writing is alternately dated, insistently repetitive, and inspired. Enoch Powell and cricketer Garfield Sobers haunt the story (it’s set during the 1973 Test match).

I think Fagon’s point is that the oppressed re-enact the lessons of their oppressors. And that, however bad things get for black men, it’s worse for black women. The male characters are misogynistic, homophobic, and reflexively antisemitic. They alternately celebrate and decry the sexualisation of black bodies.

Natalie Simpson and Nickcolia King-N’da (handout)
Natalie Simpson and Nickcolia King-N’da (handout)

Yet they are also charming, compelling, swaggering figures. King-N’Da and Omari-Kinch switch between Cockney, received pronunciation and patois, often mid-sentence, a dazzling expression of integration and deracination that’s accomplished with aplomb. Simpson is fine as the temptress/scold Jackie, but her character is only there to react to or trigger the men.

You could say the same about female characters created by many famous playwrights in the 70s though. And I keep coming back to Fagon’s radicalism. A railwayman, soldier, boxer, welder, actor and then playwright, he died at 49 in 1986 of a heart attack, and is chiefly remembered by an award given to promising black playwrights in his name, rather than by his work.

This was his fourth play, launched into a strong but small black theatre scene in London, just seven years after the end of censorship freed theatre from stifling gentility. Its profanity, frankness and gonzo sensibility must have been shocking. Walton’s production ensures you get a sense of that today.

Hampstead Theatre, NW3, to July 10, hampsteadtheatre.com

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