Review: The Death of a Black Man, at Hampstead Theatre
10 June, 2021 — By Lucy Popescu
Nickcolia King-N’Da in The Death of a Black Man. Photo: Marc Brenner
THE multi-talented Alfred Fagon was a boxer, poet, actor, singer and playwright. His unsettling drama, The Death of a Black Man, premiered at Hampstead Theatre in 1975 but, curiously, has never been produced again until now.
Harold Pinter’s influence is evident. It would have been interesting to see how Jamaican-born Fagon developed as a playwright, but he died tragically young in 1986.
The play is set in a Chelsea flat in 1973. The West Indies have triumphed against England in Test cricket and Enoch Powell is on the ascent. Shakie (Nickcolia King-N’Da), an enterprising 18-year-old, has made a small fortune selling African chairs made in Yorkshire.
He’s visited by Jackie (Natalie Simpson), an elegant 30-year-old woman with whom he fathered a daughter when he was 15, and his childhood friend Stumpie (Toyin Omari-Kinch). Jackie is proudly middle-class and works as a social worker. She decides to stay with Shakie for a few days while she visits friends.
Stumpie complains of the white appropriation of black music and dreams of importing African musicians to England but he needs cash. He’s hoping his friend might oblige but Shakie doesn’t see the business proposition as viable – “black people never get further than pubs with their music in England”.
Over a series of nights in the flat, the characters drink Champagne, smoke ganja, scheme, bicker and dance. The second half opens with the eponymous demise of Shakie’s father – a jazz musician found dead in a Manchester gutter (inspired by the jazzman Joe Harriott).
The mood darkens when we discover that Jackie is a prisoner in the flat. Up until now she has circled around the two men, using her sexuality to manipulate Shakie – the shift in power dynamics is reminiscent of Pinter’s The Homecoming.
The final part of Dawn Walton’s engaging production feels contrived. Jackie’s incarceration and growing hysteria lack credibility and this detracts from the shock revelation that the two men seek to profit from enslaving her.
Nevertheless, the cast give energetic and committed performances in this bold and timely revival that will hopefully invigorate interest in Fagon’s work.
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Until July 10