On the first Saturday of every month, three black men go walking in the Peak District. They are part of the Black Men’s Walking Group in Sheffield. They walk for their health and wellbeing. They walk in the footsteps of their ancestors. They walk for freedom. “We walk. Though we are written into the landscape, you don’t see us. We walked England before the English“.
Written by Testament; a rapper, composer, beatboxer, and theatre maker from Yorkshire, Black Men Walking explores what it means to be black and British in these increasingly divisive times.
Whilst three men walking in the Peak District might not sound like riveting theatre, Black Men Walking proves it can be. When the weather turns treacherously foggy, their walk becomes fraught with danger. As they fight against the elements, they stumble across an ill-prepared young female hip hop artist, Ayeesha.
The strength of the play is in its magnificent, diverse characters that span different generations. Thomas is the eldest member of the group, who strongly believes in embracing his heritage. “We walk in the footsteps of kings”. Thomas’ character forms a strong connection with the old customs and traditions of his ancestors, and is on a spiritual journey of enlightenment. Matthew is a middle-class doctor from Barnsley, who appears to be in a struggling marriage. Richard is of Ghanaian heritage and is a huge Star Trek fan.
This cross-generational mix creates some wonderfully warm humour, particularly with Ayeesha’s character. Played to perfection by Dorcas Sebuyange, she describes the three men as “Black Last of the Summer Wine“, and is delightfully sharp-witted, constantly putting them in their place. She has lighthearted banter with all three men, which is a joy to watch, particularly when her rap to Public Enemy is completely lost on the older generation.
Black Men Walking also simultaneously prompts profound reflection on the disparity between generations. Ayeesha challenges Thomas’ ethos, asking what use is knowing ancestral heritage when she is faced with casual racism on a daily basis. As the recent disgraceful racism endured by the England football team proved, it is sadly still prevalent in today’s society.
Coincidentally, in this play, Thomas describes the exact same racist abuse happening in the 1980s at a Chelsea football match. It is shameful to see that attitudes towards people of colour have reverted back to appalling racism. Stoked by a racist Prime Minister who called black Africans “Picaninnies” with “watermelon smiles”, this country is becoming increasingly dissident. Racism is becoming normalised and people are constantly being told to “Go back to where you came from”. England is seen as a white country nowadays.
By taking a walk through history, Black Men Walking teaches a valuable lesson that black people have walked this land for thousands of years. Although Mary Beard was abused for saying it, there were black Romans who walked the same ancient tracks as the three walkers follow today. The spiritual manifestations of these ancestors are invoked through rhythmic, choral incantations.
This is dramatically stunning, but at times the sound design is overbearing, and the rhythmic chanting drowns out the speaker’s explanations of who these ancestors are. This could just be due to the fact that I was sat at the back of the auditorium though.
Black Men Walking is a beautifully poetic, life-affirming, spiritual journey to the past that poignantly prompts reflection on the present. Filled with wonderful characters and warm humour, it is a delightful piece of evocative theatre.
Black Men Walking is presented by Eclipse Theatre Company and is currently touring the UK.