Before the Normans, before the Vikings, before the fall of the Roman Empire (and even long, long before that according to the latest DNA analyses of ancient skeletons found in Cheddar Gorge) black men and women were in England. For centuries black people have walked the land and been witnesses and sometimes makers of British history.
Black Men Walking is about three members of the real life Black Men’s Walking Group, who currently meet once a month to walk the Peaks, ostensibly for health, but in this play to remind themselves they belong. Each of the four characters in this passionate play has known everyday racism, the kind that most white people, no matter how well intentioned they are, simply do not understand because they are never on the receiving end. They also have their own personal reasons for walking: Matthew, a GP (Trevor Laird), has family problems; Richard (Tonderai Munyevu) has problems relating to his family back in Ghana; Thomas (Tyrone Huggins) coping with redundancy; but together they seek something that binds them to each other and to the landscape that absorbs and enlivens them.
So far, so good. But on this walk, with a snowstorm coming on, they encounter Ayeesha (Dorcas Sebuyange), a young black woman who has come to the Peaks for the first time to lose herself. She’s not on a suicide mission, though from her lack of preparation and understanding of the landscape she might end up that way. But neither does she want to be rescued. She’s mouthy, edgy, nervous, urban, and she’s been damaged by the ongoing racism she encounters every day at home. But that doesn’t mean she’s about to accept the old men’s quasi-mystical reasons for seeking identity out here in the wild. Then, just as they appear to come to some sort of uneasy truce the landscape itself throws them a mighty challenge.
Black Men Walking has received a lot of publicity, including a whole programme dedicated to it on Radio 4. It’s a great play, powerfully performed. I must admit I found some of the scenes in which the action gives way to mystical proselytising somewhat difficult to follow and not particularly engaging, but it is without doubt entertainment with force and conviction. By walking back into history, the characters each find a way forward with their lives and thus enrich the history of Britain, a history that extends a long way into the future.
* Black Men Walking runs until February 10. Visit belgrade.co.uk to book.