walking top 

Tonderai Munyevu as Richard, Tyrone Huggins as Thomas and Trevor Laird  as Matthew

Black Men Walking

Coventry Belgrade B2


If you visit Nigeria, you may light upon thousands of black people walking or scurrying about their business, cantering from village to village, carrying wares for sale, bearing goods from market back home, energetic and vibrant, making their own work, being entrepreneurs, exercising their initiative: it’s a wholly admirable sight. You might find much the same in Kenya.

I recently crossed there from Niger, to the north, and the contrast could not be more glaring. Work was in short supply. Grown men and boys alike, eminently employable youths and young men, hoping vainly for work, but shorn of self-respect, reluctantly loafing around, snoozing in the sun, scarcely able to be self-reliant, their ability to provide miserably shattered.

There’s a real live group which gave inspiration to this beautifully imagined play. Over ten years ago Maxwell Ayamba, a Ghanaian originally, founded ‘100 Black Men Walk for Health’. His aim was to get his black fellows and contemporaries, many in middle age, away from a sedentary life in British cities and out into the fields and on to the paths and moors, much as their white companions might, as an aide to their physical health and well-being, but also to give an uplift and refreshment to their state of mind, blowing away the cobwebs.

This has inspired the celebrated Rapper known as Testament, together with the vivacious touring black theatre company Eclipse, based in Sheffield, to come up with this cleverly conceived and absorbing stagework which focuses entirely on three men embarked on a walk in the open swards and rocky outcrops of what seems to be South Yorkshire and the borders of Derbyshire. These three keep tramping, tramping, and their animated conversation is rich and humorous, and often enough, revealing.

There is a fourth character, a girl, Ayeesha (Dorcas Sebuyange) who latterly emerges as a lass from Sheffield, and a vocal one, but who at times with her singing and agile movements seems more to be a kind of life force or spirit. There is something mystic in temperament about Thomas (Tyrone Huggins), the oldest of the trio, who seems the most drawn to the spirit, or spirits, of place. 


Dorcas Sebuyange as Ayeesha

It is he who senses the magical past which in a sense Ayeesha epitomises. Thomas, splendidly well played, his Yorkshire burr deliberately gentle, as Ayeesha’s latterly is blowsy, is the one who has most clearly ‘connected’ with the past, and is most convinced that the black man is no newcomer to these wondrous sights. ‘We walked England before the English’ is one of his earnest mottoes.

All three (not, notably, Ayeesha) have English names and in this splendidly brisk text are nicely contrasted: the passionate Thomas, with a feel for history and the beyond, the level-headed but mobile phone-obsessed doctor, Matthew, who keeps disappearing like Vladimir in Waiting for Godot (a splendidly consistent, common sense performance from Trevor Laird): ‘My weather app says it’s foggy’; ‘Well I can see that, ripostes Thomas; and the more breezy, excitable Richard (Tonderai Munyevu), bouncy and optimistic and a cheerful, congenial companion..

They are completely at home with the English vistas and their mode of speech is gorgeously well clued-up: ‘spurs, red grouse, ancient trackways, Roman Roads, the 9th legion, treelines’, and replete witch ribbing banter: ‘Who are you, Country File?’ ‘We’re not all Southern softies’, ‘You’re as English as Yorkshire pudding.’

And they are: as English as the rest of us, perhaps more so, and proud of it (‘I don’t really remember much before Sheffield’, says the Ghanaian (Richard), who arrived here aged five). They enjoy a ‘cuppa’, ‘wear the right attire’.  

By the simple device of having two of them periodically sit out (visibly so), Director Dawn Walton (founder and driving force behind Eclipse; the production is shared with Manchester’s Royal Exchange) enables each, in Testament’s meaty script, to engage in reminiscence that contrasts with their walking chatter. Thomas is the first, followed soon by Matthew. Their thoughts are intense, cogent, pertinent. Later Ayeesha can mock the 1970s for the kind of racial abuse still quite normal then. But the three men are more concerned with getting with life as it is now: lots of things have changed; black Britons are accepted.

Walking the hills is not without its dangers. A high point of the play is the crisis, when dark mists swirl in and their vision is next to nothing. Their response to danger is not frenetic or histrionic: these friends calm one another down. If the soliloquies (Matthew: ‘My dad manages to be a bastard even when he’s dead’) impact strongly, so do the moments of extended dialogue. There are several such, each enabling a different aspect of attitude or plot to be unveiled, teased out by two of them. It’s not just a good script, it’s a sophisticated one, a perceptive and incisive one too.

All four actors bring a stage presence and vivid assurance that served the text well. Each is a real character, with Thomas’s visionary yet sage and articulate presence designating him effectively the leader, Matthew’s bumbling good sense always appealing, Richard’s enthusiasm moderated by interspersed reflection. Their interplay was delicious, as they remarkably kept up their very different ways of plodding across the moorland and outcrops.

It’s a vital and vivid and beautifully observed show. Credit not just to the powerfully effective acting team, but to the many support personnel needed to get such a play on to the stage. To 10-02-18

Roderic Dunnett


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