The Death of Black Man: Hampstead Theatre
- Credit: Marc Brenner
‘I am not interested in Black politics’ declares well-heeled Jackie to Jamaican-born hustler Shakie when she turns up at his Chelsea flat.
Eighteen-year-old Shakie is the father of Jackie’s child and trades in overpriced ethnic furniture. In this bruising revival of Alfred Fagon’s seminal play, first staged at Hampstead Theatre in 1975, director Dawn Walton presents its toxic mix of racist contradictions with blistering clarity.
The play opens with Shakie, cricket bat in hand, delivering a bravura monologue about West Indies cricketing hero Garry Sobers. Tributes paid, a pitch-perfect 70s Habitat style room becomes the setting for what is essentially a debate-heavy kitchen-sink drama, albeit a very dark one.
There are three combatants: Shakie, who believes white gullible Chelsea girls and beatniks exist to be fleeced; Jackie, his snarling, beautiful 30-year old ex-lover whose claim to have moved on with her retired Jewish boyfriend are contradicted by the flight stickers on her suitcase; and Stumpie, an activist out to monetize Black musicianship for Africans.
Fagon flags up how entrepreneurship and social mobility in Black British communities can come at a high price – literally for Jackie. Nickcolia King-N’da tones down Shakie’s violence and misogyny to make the dynamic more credible for a contemporary audience, but that dilutes the chemistry between the exes and reduces dramatic tension.
Toyin Omari-Kinch as Stumpie brings an impressive latent fury to his role and patois rants. The issue of Black prostitution is woven into the narrative clumsily but Natalie Simpson plays Jackie with a fine and fierce pride and Walton’s decision to underplay the melodramatic climactic scene by staging it as an address to the audience helps disguise the somewhat forced plotting and dated histrionics.
Just over a decade after the play’s first staging, Fagon dropped dead outside his Camberwell flat. Police rushed to give him a pauper’s funeral rather than bother to identify him. Shakie hears how his father, who is loosely based on the famous jazzman Joe Harriot, dies in a Manchester gutter, a death emblematic of the tragic facelessness of Caribbean immigration at the time. It’s impossible not to read Fagon’s own death as a self-fulfilling prophecy. 3/5 stars.