Life & Culture

Theatre review: Death of a Black Man

This play was written in 1975 - but feels like a work in progress


Revisiting both the Hampstead and a neglected play last seen here in 1975 feels like a genuine landmark on our route out of the pandemic. There is also the sense here of a wrong being righted.

Alfred Fagon’s name is attached to the best known award for black British dramatists. Yet the work of this Jamaican-born, Wind-rush generation playwright who died suddenly in 1986 at the age of 49 has been rarely if ever seen.

The set-up here feels odd. Fake even. Shakie (Nickcolia King-N’da) is only 18 yet has accumulated enough wealth by selling African crafts to rich, white tourists to live in a King’s Road apartment with a fridge full of champagne.

He is a young man of modest beginnings. His father is a flautist who performs on the pub circuit, mainly on Sundays because, as Shakie points out with withering precision, for England’s white middle classes “Sundays is the day for jazz.”

All the action takes place in his fashionably furnished flat. Enter the even hipper Jackie (Natalie Simpson), Shakie’s 30-year-old former lover. Their barbed banter reveals she is his “baby mother” and that he was only 15 when he impregnated her, though she didn’t know this at the time. But it is with the arrival of the more aggressive Stumpie (Toyin Omari-Kinch) that the play becomes potent.

Stumpie is also an entrepreneur but driven by the injustice of white exploitation of black music. For him Jewish producers are not an empathetic path of least resistance for black music, but profiteers who will leave him penniless if he does deals with them.

This view meets only limited resistance from Shakie who is as happy to make money from poor black people as he is from rich whites. To these exchanges, spoken in a muscular West Indian and London brogue, Fagon adds a Pinter-like misogynistic threat. Though, unlike Pinter, the threat becomes violent.

So Fagon is not just interested in identifying the forces that suppress black enterprise. There is also a sceptical view here of the (then) young black generation’s nihilistic response to it. With the death of Shakie’s near destitute father (the black man of the title) Jackie pours scorn on the son’s lack of interest in going to the funeral. And when the entrepreneurs’ money-making schemes falter, events in the flat become ever more depraved.

Dawn Walton’s stylish production has a few too many bells and whistles. The action is overlooked by a cricket scoreboard (Shakie loves cricket) with an ever increasing score symbolising something more profound than runs, but exactly what is never clear.

The acting is excellent, however. Omari-Kinch and King-N’da expertly inflect their dialogue with cockney and West Indian accents. Simpson is also excellent revealing a decency beneath Jackie’s cool, disdainful exterior.

The production makes a strong case for Fagon, yet four and half decades after the play was first seen it still feels like a work in progress. And theatre-starved audiences might be hoping for something a little more feel-good and welcoming.

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