Alfred Fagon’s play, first staged at Hampstead in 1975, has acquired new resonance over the years. Declamatory and bristling with harshness, it provides an impassioned report on what it was to be black in Britain in the 70s – when the West Indies cricket team was triumphing and Enoch Powell’s rants had poisoned the air.
The title hovers over the action like a bird of prey. The death is that of a musician, who does not appear on stage but whose life and talent influence the plot. Some unusually useful programme essays suggest that the last days of this character, loosely based on the Jamaican jazz saxophonist Joe Harriott, have a terrible parallel with the dramatist’s own death: Fagon was cremated as a pauper at the age of 49. Yet watching The Death of a Black Man now, the most striking extinction is unheralded. It is not that of a man. This is an evening that suggests how full history is of overlooked lives and how each generation may discover different neglectfulness.
Dawn Walton’s bright, uningratiating, staccato production makes evident the play’s considerable historic interest. Fagon is documenting the rise and ingenious struggle of a new generation of entrepreneurs: one man is getting rich by flogging African “monster” chairs, which are actually made in Yorkshire, to Chelsea stockbrokers; another is trying to wrest black music away from white producers. Fagon is also charting misogyny and antisemitism. Yet though often salutary, this is an only intermittently absorbing evening. The action jolts; Natalie Simpson, Toyin Omari-Kinch and Nickcolia King-N’da declare rather than reveal themselves.
The Death of a Black Man is staged as part of Hampstead’s 60th birthday celebrations, for which the theatre is reviving a number of plays from each era of its history: the run of Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter was cut short by Covid restrictions. Both plays have been worth recouping – though the best memorial for a new writing theatre will always be new writing.
The Death of a Black Man is at Hampstead theatre, London, until 10 July