Alfred Fagon’s provocatively-titled play returns to the Hampstead Theatre as part of its 60th anniversary celebrations in a season that before and during the pandemic intended to restage significant work that had premiered at the venue. After two abortive attempts to stage Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter forced into submission by lockdowns two and three, and with Tennessee Williams’s Two Character Play rescheduled for July, Fagon’s fascinating two act drama opened at the venue in 1975 and while some of its gender attitudes may have dated, so much of Death of a Black Man feels as fresh and challenging now as it did 46 years ago.
It is highly likely that you will never have seen Fagon’s rarely performed play before or indeed anything by a playwright whose abstract work has been out of favour pretty much since it was staged. But the revived interest in Pinter thanks to Jamie Lloyd’s enlightening season (as much as Pinter requires reviving) that found new forms of contemporary resonance and perspective in these sometimes troubling works has created this similar opportunity to reappraise Fagon’s most notable play, one that applies similar techniques in the exploration of the existence, identity, language and social struggle of its characters.
Additional cultural context for this timely revival has been provided by Steve McQueen’s recent reflections on key moments in black British history in his outstanding Small Axe series, five films, set largely during the era in which Fagon was writing. There are many references in the Chelsea-set Death of a Black Man to Ladbroke Grove and Notting Hill where Mangrove and Lovers Rock take place, while the centrality of music as a form of expression and community seers through McQueen’s films and Fagon’s play as the characters contend with their British, Caribbean and African heritage in a rich political and social mix.
What is most striking in Death of Black Man is a sense that Fagon has entirely lived in the world he is creating, an understanding of race, work, class, economic frustration and compromise that underscores the play and its cast of three. Indeed Fagon emigrated to the UK, worked for British Rail and joined the army before becoming a writer, and this understanding of how society operated in 1970s Britain – and arguably today – is felt through the experience of his wheeler-dealer creations trying to generate and sustain a particular type of lifestyle.
Using a three-person structure, Fagon explores the feeling of otherness within the drama, introducing rogue third elements that bring a sense of danger and disruption to a settled domestic arrangement. And in fact, he does this twice in slightly different but effective ways. The very first scene brings the long absent Jackie to the door of former lover Shakie who we soon discover is the father of her young child, a child she claims is in Paris with her current, wealthier boyfriend. Instantly Fagon establishes the blood connection between these people, an uneasy but decisive link that evolves during this opening section as Jackie inveigles her way into the flat as, an albeit, temporary resident while she is in London.
Into this disharmonious arrangement comes Stumpie, Shakie’s best friend, introduced as an interloper into the lives of the former couple. But quickly Fagon suggests something far more interesting and in giving the stage over to long duologues between the male characters that reinforce their own close relationship, it becomes clear that Jackie is the stranger come to cause the disruption that partially motors the drama and this knowledge then makes sense of the play’s subsequent direction and its consequences for the three individuals confined to Shakie’s flat throughout the action.
Divided into four scenes across two Acts, Fagon is able to use his three characters to create alternative currents within the drama, using different pairings that allow the characters to both contend and create changing levels of confederacy as the story plays out. Reference to the emotional and sexual relationship between Jackie and Shakie becomes a brutal tussle for power and status, while Shakie and Stumpie lock horns over culture, heritage and finance. Meanwhile, something far darker and more menacing takes place between Jackie and Stumpie who fight most openly for control of the conversation – that neither of them leaves the flat once they enter it is vital as they vie for control of Shakie who is able to leave at any time. Only rarely does Fagon place all three characters together on stage in what are pivotal moments where the tension of the duologues is partially released and from which new dangers emerge.
Fagon here is interested in different expressions of social status and how this affects the behaviour of his creations. Class is a major driver as Jackie snears at the men she considers beneath her, her middle class status referred to again and again, first as a protective layer that sets her apart in manner and behaviour but later as a way for the men to separate themselves from her as an equal and to profit from her body. Class is always as a badge of distinction between them and Fagon includes some subtle interplay about money, breeding and opportunity.
But all three of the characters are “on the make” in their own way with Shakie the only one who is honest about his profitable antiques business selling African chairs made in Yorkshire and forever worrying about the mark-up. Despite being only 18, Shakie’s entrepreneurial successes are represented in this Hampstead Theatre production in his flashy suits including a particularly striking turquoise/teal number and tidy, well-appointed flat with stereo, fitted kitchen and air of sophistication – a striking tonal design by Simon Kenny that has a great elegant 70s vibe.
The centrality of Shakie’s financial solvency is crucial to the drama and soon Stumpie is keen to secure investment for his dream of making an album with authentic African drummers, a desire for partnership with his friend that is sustained into the second half as Stumpie uses several political weapons to manoeuver Shakie into position. Jackie is more subtle – a mark of her class – and while she never openly asks for or talks about money, she plays frequently on the existence of the child between them and her former attempts to sue for maintenance. But Fagon also leaves the audience to unpick (with the supposed wealth she has access to) just why Jackie is there at all – a need for something more concrete from Shakie than baby Priscilla perhaps.
As Death of a Black Man takes shape, the question of black heritage and community in the unwelcoming confines of Britain comes more sharply into view, and Stumpie uses these debates to win Shakie to his side both morally and financially. Like McQueen’s films, there are debates here about living in the discriminatory confines of 70s Britain and its effects on the treatment the male characters receive particularly during the course of business transactions. Shakie notes he is fairly benign in the eyes of his white partners on the Kings Road where much of the unseen external action takes places while Shakie angrily rejects black musicians who make songs catering to white tastes – a similar point is made to the character of Sam Cooke in One Night in Miami exploring whether genuine acceptance and equality is possible.
What emerges during the play then is an exploration of complex notions of identity in which Stumpie in particular and later Shakie begin to question the boundaries and purpose of their life in Britain, a discussion that broadens beyond interactions between races to look at variation within black communities. Certainly in Director Dawn Walton’s production, characters at first adopt a hybrid British-West Indies accent, slipping between different kinds of pronunciation sometimes within the same sentence – something which also happens in Lovers Rock as the leads return to their real lives and London accents at the end of the house party. It feels pertinent that Jackie has recently returned from Jamaica while Stumpie becomes increasingly politicised by the notion of a return to Africa, something he rhapsodises fervently about as a solution to the issue of identity in crisis. None of this is resolved within the play or necessarily given any preference by the writer but it speaks to the rich, multi-faceted and conflicted heritage that writers are still grappling with today.
As with McQueen’s drama, the expressiveness of music is a central pillar in demarcating, shaping, celebrating and sustaining black British identity, and Walton selects diverse pieces across the production to reflect these very different facets both within the action and between scenes to mark the changed energy. Early on, there is reggae to which the all the characters dance while changing the set, there are pieces that nod to the African drums that call to Stumpie while the final section includes blues and jazz which emerged from southern America, appropriately appearing at a point in the play where everything changes for them.
In staging Fagon’s play for the Hampstead Theatre, Walton never flinches from the more disturbing elements of the text. The sexual relationship between the 15-year old Shakie and the, then, unknowing 27-year old Jackie comes up again and again, while Shakie’s casual and predatory attitudes to women, the brevity of his relationships with them and Jackie’s recurring fears of being raped by either man add a feeling of violence that sits uncomfortably. Audience members audibly gasped during a single moment of shocking physical contact but the play is so finely riveted, its language brutal in its expression and sparing in its creation of contextual detail and tone, that the ending will only make sense against the backdrop of the more unpleasant sections. And like Pinter, Fagon is not asking us to like or approve of these characters, only to see them and their behaviours in the context of the power dynamics he is so vividly creating.
Walton takes these cues from the text to create a more realistic first half in which Shakie, Stumpie and Jackie are more grounded in their surroundings and the fairly ordinary lives they experience. But in the second Kenny’s set becomes a shell of its former self, the wall panels removed to create a large black surround as though burnt away and while the furniture remains in place, the room becomes increasingly distorted, disarranged and abstract as Fagon’s text moves to a different level. Johanna Town’s lighting becomes quietly more or less intense at turning points in the play, building to a crucial moment in which the characters speak their truths to the auditorium, their last words before the inevitable destruction that awaits them.
With a few days before the play’s official press night, this production of Death of a Black Man is already taking shape and its undertones will become stronger as the run continues. Nickcolia King-N’Da is a swaggering Shakie, a boy older than his 18-years and very pleased with his life but finds it irreparably disrupted by the new residents of his flat and King-N’Da conveys how rapdily Shakie is pulled into the black hole they create. Toyin Omari-Kinch is already on excellent form as the threatening Stumpie, a creation whose enthusiasm and amity comes with a dark edge of menace and fanaticism that makes him unpredictable while Natalie Simpson’s Jackie gets stronger as the production unfolds, finding the rhythm in Fagon’s text and taking Jackie to a dreadful and haunting conclusion.
Death of a Black Man is undoubtedly a dark and difficult play, one that has a discomposing effect on the viewer even 46 years after its first staging. But this is bold programming from the Hampstead Theatre at a time when audiences are clamouring for different perspectives, and while there are plenty of plays that would have been an easier sell, reopening with Fagon’s astoundingly contemporary drama feels significant. This may be a belated birthday celebration for the venue but with gems like this in its arsenal the Hampstead Theatre won’t be collecting its bus pass just yet.