Prophetic play 'paves the way for future black British writers'

Hampstead Theatre

Hampstead Theatre The Death of a Black Man L-R Nickcolia King-N'da, Natalie Simpson and Toyin Omari-Kinch - Credit: Shaun Webb

Dawn Walton is chuckling about a "wonderful moment teaching a Millennial how to use a dial phone."

It's one of the joys of being back in the rehearsal room after a year when the theatrical world was on hold.

"It's so amazing, a kind of rediscovery and an experience in re-engaging with your stamina," she says.

Dawn Walton Portrait 2017Photo Credit: The Other Richard

Dawn Walton directs The Death of a Black Man at Hampstead Theatre - Credit: The Other Richard

The play is Alfred Fagon's rediscovered classic The Death of A Black Man, and the year is 1973 - hence the historic hardware. As teenage wheeler dealer Shakie hatches a plan with best mate Stumpie to break into the booming music industry, they celebrate the West Indies cricket team beating England at their own game.

"It's not history, history but it's the past," says Walton of the "challenging" play first staged at Hampstead Theatre 46 years ago.

Hampstead Theatre

The Death of a Black Man Image 2 L-R Natalie Simpson, Toyin Omari-Kinch, Nickcolia King-N'da x - Credit: Marc Brenner

"It's set at a seminal moment when the West Indies team beat the colonisers, the first year that we had the Notting Hill carnival we know today. Attitudes have changed and they haven't changed."

Walton says the play's positioning "bang in the middle of (Enoch Powell's) Rivers of Blood and Thatcher's arrival" is crucial to its exploration of race, class and politics.

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"It's an extraordinarily prophetic and clever play. Alfred was able to see the effects of that recent past but also the future. They are not just talking about Britain, it touches on histories around the world - South Africa, Pan Africa. The third character Jackie is Jamaican born but British boarding school educated, more middle-class than these go-getting young businessmen - there's an intersection of different voices all black but distinct.

The Death of a Black Man Image 8 L-R Nickcolia King-N'da, Toyin Omari-Kinch Photo © Marc Brenner

The Death of a Black Man Image 8 L-R Nickcolia King-N'da, Toyin Omari-Kinch - Credit: Marc Brenner

"It's incredible that Alfred could write authentic voices that are recognisable today, raising the things we are still discussing - the cult of the individual, gender politics, cultural appropriation, race, class, left-right politics, the legacy of empire and colonialism."

The style veers from naturalism to heightened drama "it's all about big emotions that get bigger," and some language has been changed to be palatable to 21st century sensitivities.

"It's not that we don't want to shock or upset, more that my 2021 ears might not be comfortable with some pieces of language. It's important that it doesn't change character perspective, that we understand where it came from and feel it's justified."

Jamaican-born Fagon was a soldier, boxing champion, welder, actor, poet and playwright whose name has graced the leading theatre award for Black British writers since his early death in 1986.

"He is talking to my generation," says Walton who is of Caribbean heritage. "Not the Windrush but the second generation who were born here or came when they were tiny and were adopting different things to their parents. It's about values. It's saying 'are these things you are adopting all good?"

Walton identifies Fagon's unique outside/inside view of British culture, "that double consciousness that we all have to a certain extent."

"If you are Caribbean you are British, your references, schooling, the sport you play are British, you are part of it and yet outside it."

While she finds it "amazing" that Fagon discovered he could write as he spoke for a British audience and that Hampstead Theatre embraced that in 1975, it's important to remind today's talented Millennials of those breakthroughs.

"My entire career has been about looking to the past so you can feel confident about pushing forward," she says.

"This generation of writers and programmers don't even know there is a precedent. You have to value your classics so that they feel confident about creating from their own perspective and programming into the future."

The Death of A Black Man runs May 28 to July 10 at Hampstead Theatre.