If the history of mid-twentieth-century theatre is a parade of dead salesmen, deferred dreams, and toxic homecomings, then Alfred Fagon’s play The Death of a Black Man deserves a good spot in that procession. Yet, like Barry Reckord and Mustapha Matura, Jamaican-born Fagon belongs to a cohort of Black British dramatists from the 1960s and ’70s whose contributions to British theatre remain overlooked (if not largely forgotten), in part due to how rarely (if ever) their plays get revived.
So it is a credit to Hampstead Theatre that they have decided to re-open their doors and curtains with Dawn Walton’s recuperative production of The Death of a Black Man, which premiered in this very theatre in 1975 but has gone unproduced since then. The title alone is enough to make a case for why this play calls out to be exhumed now. And it is the title, again, that hints at the crucible that Fagon’s drama is: in this three-hander, questions of race, class, and gender intermingle, life and death bleed into each other, and ghosts of other plays rub shoulders.
The set-up is intriguing. It’s 1973, and we are in a chic flat on King’s Road, Chelsea, realised in Simon Kenny’s tasteful design as a mid-century modern interior bathed in yellows and browns. The flat is owned by the 18-year-old Shakie (Nickcolia King-N’da), a self-made entrepreneur who imports “African chairs” from Yorkshire and sells them to white buyers for inflated prices.
Fagon lights the fuse of the play with the unannounced arrival of the 30-year-old social worker Jackie (Natalie Simpson), who, it turns out, had an affair with Shakie when he, her “little boy blue,” was only 15—an affair that resulted in the birth of a child. The ex-couple is soon joined by Shakie’s friend Stumpie (Toyin Omari-Kinch), aged 21 and just back from a trip to Germany, who tries to persuade Shakie to invest his money in promoting Black music. A heady triangle of conflicting motives thus gets born.
The play’s first half mainly fleshes out how differently its Black characters each relate to their identities, communities, and environments. Though debate-like talk eclipses narrative progress, Walton’s vibrant staging amps up each antagonistic encounter of ideas and opinions. The talented cast, too, embrace their characters’ desire to declare their perspectives at length. They pass around a wide range of issues: the commodification of Black culture, systemic racism, class privilege, sexual politics, and consent, among others.
Then a Black man dies, and everything changes. By the start of the third act, Shakie’s musician father has been found dead in the gutter, and Shakie, despite Jackie’s urgings, refuses to attend his funeral in Manchester. The remainder of the play goes to some pretty unexpected and unsettling places, shedding its relatively tame skin and becoming sinister, recalling Harold Pinter’s The Homecoming.
Both Walton’s direction and Kenny’s scenic design accentuate this layered shift in tone by gradually distancing themselves from the production’s initial realism. On an increasingly self-exposed, self-deconstructing set, Walton’s actors ease their hold on the firmness of their characters, slowly turning them into erratic presences with changed and changing convictions. Most notably, Walton stages the play’s climactic scene with all three actors lined across the stage and facing the audience, even though they are still speaking to one another.
In some ways, these stylistic flourishes (including the high-jinks scene transitions enhanced by Johanna Town’s technicolour lighting design) are meant to administer electric shocks to the play: they jolt it out of its usual rhythm, letting it run its fateful course with added vigour. Yet, despite its occasional verbosity, The Death of a Black Man is a play whose own trajectory is already shocking enough to keep its audience sufficiently alert. The production’s stylised gestures and the increasing abstraction of its performances do more to dissipate than to strengthen this crucial arc.
All of which is to say that this production could have punched me in the face, but did not. In fact, I did want it to hit me like that: so acrid is Fagon’s ultimate critique of Black British precarity, of the price of social mobility for a racist system’s infighting victims, that its realisation on stage can be truly haunting. It is in this final stretch that Walton’s staging, notwithstanding its strong build-up, could have delivered a more compelling salvo.
Still, encountering this unduly neglected play in this commendable production feels like a small miracle in its own right. It will most likely send you to Fagon’s other works and make you wish for a post-pandemic theatre with many more revivals of this kind.
The Death of a Black Man is on at Hampstead Theatre till 10 July. More info here.