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Testament - Black Men Walking

Testament talks ahead of Black Men Walking

Posted on 1 February 2018

Following rave reviews for its premiere at Manchester’s Royal Exchange Theatre, Eclipse Theatre’s innovative new drama Black Men Walking will head for Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre next week as the second stop on a UK-wide tour. Dedicated to the Peak District’s real-life Black Men’s Walking Group, the play follows the journey of three hillwalkers who head out on a hike, only to find themselves confronted by figures from the past, and travelling backwards through 2000 years of black British history.

This new play spearheads Eclipse’s groundbreaking new writing scheme Revolution Mix – a three-year project which will develop the largest ever national delivery of black British stories to regional theatres. Ahead of the show’s arrival in Coventry, rapper, beatboxer and performer Testament discusses his first foray into writing a play for other actors.

Tell us about where the idea for Black Men Walking came from.

Basically what happened is that one night I got off-stage from a gig in Leeds, and [Eclipse Theatre Artistic Director] Dawn Walton was there waiting for me with her producer. First of all she told me about the Revolution Mix project – how she was getting together a bunch of writers to explore narratives that you don’t normally hear about black people (as opposed to the usual stories of the Windrush, or slavery or gangsters). Then she said that she had an idea for a play about this wonderful black men’s walking group in Sheffield which she wanted me to write!

Did you know anything about walking groups beforehand?

I’d done a little bit of camping and my parents did take us out on walks as kids. Also we live in Yorkshire now and my wife’s quite into walking. But it was never really a big part of our lives.

But then part of this commission was actually to go out walking with the guys, to catch a bit of the vibe and find out what the walk means for them. And I really enjoyed that – getting the chance to talk to these really smart, progressive, intelligent, compassionate men. And actually women as well!

Where did you go from there? How involved were the walkers in your writing process?

They weren’t directly involved in the writing because I think that would have been difficult to work out on a practical level. Also, the play isn’t literally about them or telling their story. What I’m doing is imagining three other black men joining that group, or perhaps a similar group. It’s about taking that impetus and the reason these guys go on their walks and shaping it into something new.

And I think that’s really interesting, because there are lots of different motivations. Partly it’s a health thing – both for mental and physical health. There’s something about connecting to nature that affects our mental health – it’s well-documented in psychological studies that greenspace is important for us. Also it’s a way of creating a community group and building friendships. For men of a certain generation particularly, there’s a question around where you go to make friends and find your community. As a society we’re so fragmented now, which also has knock-on effects on our mental health and spiritual wellbeing.

And these guys have found a really positive way of reinforcing black identity as well, because the stereotype is that black British people just belong in cities and aren’t really connected to nature. For some people, just going out walking is a statement. Some people find the image of a black man in a cagoule halfway up a hill in the Peak District quite strange, but it shouldn’t be, especially when black people have been here walking the land for over 2000 years.

Tell us about the characters you’ve created.

So there are three men who have gone on the walk today. Normally there’s more in the group, but the others have all thought better on this occasion. All three of the men have got their own questions that they’re carrying with them, and as they embark on this walk, we get to see them work through some of their issues, but also tread in the footsteps of some historical figures that might well have walked the same routes hundreds and sometimes thousands of years ago. So we have some historical characters manifest and we hear their stories as well. Also, I don’t want to give away spoilers but there is a fourth character played by Dorcas Sebuyange who kind of appears in the landscape, and she’s got her own mission. So there are four different narratives all interconnected with the landscape and with history as a backdrop.

Covering 2000 years of history seems quite an ambitious undertaking in 90 minutes. How did you decide which stories you wanted to highlight and how do you work those into the play?

The whole story is told using music and spoken word and as the play goes on, I’ve used that to start to merge the historical and present day elements. So we have a sort of crossover between these liminal spaces. Time becomes very porous.

As part of the Revolution Mix project, all the writers had the chance to do these amazing lectures and research historical events and people. For me, some of them just stood out immediately. One of the first people I learned about was the Roman Emperor Septimus Severus. We know that he was either black or mixed race, and that he ruled three continents from Yorkshire. Which is just mad when you think about it. It really undermines that racist, “Go back to your own country” narrative.

Also there’s John Blanke, who was a trumpeter in the court of King Henry VIII. There’s a picture of him from 1511 playing as part of a fanfare on horseback, and it’s amazing. Often today you’ll hear people questioning whether or not it’s controversial to put a black person in a Shakespeare play. But then when you start looking back at what was going on in Tudor times, Queen Elizabeth was actually getting letters complaining that there were too many black people in London! So it’s nothing new, and it’s still garbage – we want to show that there’s a better story out there.

You composed the score for the show as well. Tell us a bit about the music.

I come from a background in hip hop and rap and beatboxing so there are elements of that as well. All of the music is being generated by the human voice, so the cast will be singing harmonies and creating vocal percussion. I did think about adding other instruments at one point, but in the end it felt full just with the voices. I think there’s something quite ethereal about the human voice.

What were your influences with the writing? Did you draw on any historical styles? Or is the history all told through a modern lens?

There’s a kind of flavour of old epic language but we’re not really going into Elizabethan English or anything like that. But one of the things I think is really important is that this is a very Yorkshire play. It’s a sort of ode to Yorkshire in a way, with these guys criss-crossing over the county border. Yorkshire really means a lot to all the characters involved, and there’s a lot of South Yorkshire dialect. One of the lines in the show is about “black in the white rose” – drawing on the fact that this is a very proud part of England. I’m an adopted Yorkshireman myself, and I’m really proud that my kids are from Yorkshire and “speak Yorkshire” and also that they are of colour as well.

How is the landscape evoked in the design?
Simon, our designer, is an absolute Jedi and has come up with this amazing thing, which on the one hand feels quite naturalistic, based on the real walking route around Padley Gorge, and on the other hand has some really abstract elements which give it a very otherworldly feel. I guess it’s a bit like with combining hip hop and theatre again – you put two different things in a blender and get something new.

You’ve written theatre shows before. How has this been different from other plays you’ve worked on?

The three pieces that I’ve written previously have all been essentially one-man shows, whereas I’m not in this one at all. Writing a play for actors is a massive step for me, and Dawn and our dramaturg Ola and the Royal Exchange Theatre have all really helped me on my journey with this new discipline.
Also, being commissioned to write something so specific has been quite freeing in a way. Ordinarily when you sit down by yourself, the sky’s the limit and you’ve got a million different options, so it can be hard to decide what to write about. Whereas with this, I knew pretty much from the start that I was going to have four actors and it was going to be about a walking group and that somehow it had to contain something about history.

Tell us a bit more about being part of the Revolution Mix project.
I think Revolution Mix feels very timely. With all the issues going on in the world at the moment, I think people are ready for it. Sometimes it can feel like we’re going backwards in terms of racial politics, and this feels like a really bold step forward – a way of cementing who we are. It’s a declaration, in a really positive way, of Britishness, and a celebration of who we are despite our complicated histories.

Eclipse Theatre’s Black Men Walking runs at the Belgrade Theatre, Coventry from Wednesday 7 until Saturday 10 February. Book now at http://www.belgrade.co.uk/event/black-men-walking.

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Nov 2, 2017, 9:22 am