The Death of a Black Man is a play that has seldom been staged since its original premiere at Hampstead Theatre in 1975.
Watching Dawn Walton’s production of Alfred Fagon’s play, I could understand why lesser directors might be dissuaded from bringing The Death of a Black Man to the stage.
While the entire play is set within the confines of Shakie’s Chelsea flat, the scale of the narrative and issues explored within the play are huge. Nevertheless, under Walton’s skilled direction, and the assured performances of Nickcolia King-N’da (Shakie), Toyin Omari-Kinch (Stumpie), and Natalie Simpson (Jackie), new life was breathed into this complex play, causing it to effectively resound with twenty-first-century audiences.
As soon as the curtain was raised, I was awestruck by Simon Kenny’s set design – a plush Chelsea flat was recreated with great precision, effectively showcasing the wealth Shakie had begun to accumulate as an entrepreneur selling African arts and crafts.
And then, the actors entered. Immediately we were introduced to the fraught relationship between Jackie and Shakie – the fact that Jackie is Shakie’s “babymother”, and that three years ago, Shakie, as a result of lying to her about his age, had impregnated Jackie when he was only fifteen years old. Under Walton’s direction, King-N’da and Simpson effectively navigated Fagon’s difficult dialogue, conveying the simultaneously flirtatious, yet antagonistic, relationship between their characters.
While Simpson went some way to conveying the contradictory aspects of Jackie’s character, it wasn’t until the end of the play, when Jackie’s hard exterior finally cracked, that I could properly comprehend her character. Indeed, at the end of the play, I was blown away by Simpson’s heartfelt breakdown – the effective performance of which was key to making the tragic conclusion of the play believable. However, I was left with the feeling that it might have been more effective if some of this underlying vulnerability was allowed to crack through earlier in the play.
Meanwhile, I was hugely impressed by King-N’da and Omari-Kinch’s performances. Omari-Kinch’s Stumpie was particularly charismatic, with the production consistently picking up in energy and dynamism whenever he entered the stage. While there was a moment of stage combat between Stumpie and Jackie that felt slightly stilted and unnatural in its build up, in general, I was greatly impressed with Omari-Kinch’s balancing of the hot-headed violence and light-hearted comedy of Stumpie. Even by the end of the play, when the toxic and selfish nature of Stumpie became clear, it was hard to outrightly dislike him after the hugely enjoyable scene transitions in which he danced across the stage with care-free abandon, and a particularly comical imitation of Shakie’s lover writing to an agony aunt.
Equally, King-N’da confidently embodied the central protagonist of the play, successfully conveying his transformation from a naïve young man with dreams of being a millionaire to an older greedy man, intent on making money by any means necessary. King-N’da also showcased his skills as a comic actor – a particularly memorable moment being the elongated time it took him to dial a number on the rotary phone.
Altogether, Walton’s production of The Death of a Black Man is a heartfelt homage to the work of Alfred Fagon that effectively demonstrated the relevance of his plays to twenty-first century audiences. I particularly enjoyed Walton’s directorial choices in the latter half of the play that disrupted the initial naturalistic direction with a fracturing of set that effectively reflected the increased fracturing of the characters and their aspirations, and culminated in the tragic, yet poetically staged, end of Jackie.
The Death of a Black Man proved to be a pertinent reminder that true racial equality and liberation cannot come without economic security, while also serving to remind us that thriving economically should not come at the cost of abusing other Black people or leaving the community behind – a pertinent reminder to support initiatives like Black Pound Day and other black-owned businesses.
The Death of A Black Man runs at Hampstead Theatre until 10th July 2021. Find out more and book your tickets here.