Eclipse Theatre is bringing black British history to life in an unlikely setting in its production set around a walking club. Director Dawn Walton tells Holly Williams how a hiking trip inspired the show
Dawn Walton was standing on a mountainside in the Peak District when her “brain tripped” and stumbled into the idea for Black Men Walking. The play, by Eclipse Theatre Company  with text by Leeds-based writer, MC and beatboxer Testament, is the first show of Revolution Mix, Eclipse’s ambitious ‘movement’ to create a canon of stories exploring black British history. It weaves together a contemporary story of three black men in a hiking club with figures from history, allowing the past and present to walk side-by-side.
Walton, Eclipse’s artistic director, heard about a real Sheffield-based black walking club; she joined them one weekend.
“So this Londoner found herself in walking boots, wandering across the Peak District,” she chuckles.
During the hike, they came across a very straight road, cutting through the landscape – an old Roman road. Her mind leapt to Septimius Severus, a black Roman emperor who travelled through Britain. “I could see Septimius walking this road 2,000 years ago, and my little feet panting behind. That was basically what started the idea,” she says.
She and Testament worked with the cast in a series of workshops to create the show, which uses movement and music – from three-part harmonising and beatboxing to hip-hop and Gregorian chant – to transport audiences across the Peak District and through the millennia.
Walton wanted the opening show of Revolution Mix, a project with 15 writers of colour, working in a variety of media, to reflect this long-lost black British history, rather than just telling one exceptional tale. So Black Men Walking features figures such as the “bangle lady”, a wealthy Roman woman of black African descent who was buried in York, John Moore, a businessman who was given the freedom of the city of York in 1687, and Pablo Fanque, a 19th-century British circus owner.
Some of these narratives may be familiar to audiences – but they’re certainly not part of our education system, nor our storytelling canon.
“The erasure of those histories is damaging and feeds into everything,” says Walton, pointing to the recent furore when classicist Mary Beard explained that Roman Britain was multicultural and the perennial fuss when black, Asian and minority ethnic actors are cast in costume dramas.
“People think history is being rewritten. It’s not; it’s actually being reconstructed as it would have been,” she adds. “Artists like myself are ‘othered’ and portrayed as just arriving. It’s frustrating. So there’s something empowering about going back 2,000 years. And it’s particularly potent in this Brexit moment, when people are saying [to ethnic minorities], ‘Go back home.’ ”
“Somehow we will never look like what people think ‘the English’ look like,” says cast member Trevor Laird. He suggests that while waves of immigrants have been assimilated in Britain over the centuries, racism continues to mean that black Britons are seen as outsiders – even if, like him, they were born here.
While the play explores thornier elements of multiculturalism, it’s resolutely not a tale of woe. “It’s not a sob story – it’s embracing all the rich history that is engraved in black Britain,” points out Dorcas Sebuyange, who plays a young woman the group meet out walking in the Peaks. “It has really educated me – I didn’t know the specifics of black British history, and I was blown away by it. Why don’t we know this? But it’s really positive, the stories we’re exploring.”
And while Black Men Walking also examines contemporary racism within Britain – from systemic police prejudice to unthinking micro-aggressions – this positivity, and the variety of black experiences included in Testament’s script, particularly appealed to its cast.
“It’s the middle-class black experience, which I haven’t seen portrayed on stage that much,” says Tonderai Munyevu, who turned down another role because he felt it was so important to be involved in this production. “It’s a rounded example of the lives of black people we don’t get to hear about. It’s not about slavery or refugees – not that those experiences aren’t valid, but the spectrum of experience is so varied that you really need to see some more of it.”
‘If my presence in the history of this country is being denied, I don’t want to be a part of that work’ Tyrone Huggins, actor
For a black actor, the stories you get to tell are still depressingly limited, agrees Tyrone Huggins: “I’ve always felt that. It’s inspired my own writing – but as an actor, I just won’t do that work anymore. If my presence as part of the history of this country is being denied, then I don’t want to be a part of that work. There’s no point sustaining an infrastructure that is denying your own existence. Pull it down.”
The aim of Revolution Mix is to get new, varied stories out there, and to empower black artists. That happens partly by building alternative artistic networks, communities and structures. For too long, there has been a “sense of isolation” for BAME artists in the UK, suggests Walton. For this reason, she decided to call Revolution Mix a ‘movement’: “It’s about galvanising; it’s about solidarity.”
There are, Walton suggests, still barriers to Black work getting commissioned in British theatre, which Revolution Mix hopes to break down. It’s still seen as risky, but the partnership structure of Revolution Mix helps ameliorate that sense of fear. It seems to be working: 12 partner theatres initially signed up, but several more are also hosting Black Men Walking, while Manchester’s Royal Exchange is a producing partner.
But she also speaks warmly of their development process: they worked with the National Theatre Studio in a series of workshops, which were then opened up to interested parties as a showcase. Seeing and hearing the script rather than reading it brought it to life for those with the power to programme.
“I don’t want to have a rampage about literary departments, but there are many ways to make work, and I think they don’t necessarily help formally challenging work to come through. And I don’t think they help black artists, in particular, be allowed to take risks,” says Walton.
She also questions the inherent hierarchies of cultural institutions and how these may work against meaningful diversity of any kind. “I think institutions work very hard to stay the same. The very structure of them is built to be exclusive, not inclusive. Everything funnels into one decision-maker at the top and I question how we get true diversity in a structure that is about excluding people. The distribution systems are still populated by one stratum of society, in terms of class, gender, race. We know this.”
Still, part of the point of Revolution Mix is to provide opportunities and effect change throughout British theatre, not just among playwrights. “We’re looking to influence at every level: who the designers are, who the audience development people are, who the marketing people are. It matters.” If you don’t make change across every section of the industry, she says, it will only be temporary and “you end up in Groundhog Day”.
Walton concludes: “We should be fighting to diversify at board levels, at management levels, at all the different strata in those institutions. It needs to be extraordinary when you walk into a room and everyone around the table looks the same.”
Profile: Eclipse Theatre
Artistic director: Dawn Walton
Number of employees: 11
Turnover (2016/17): £455,030
Funding: Arts Council England, Esmee Fairbairn Foundation, Heritage Lottery Fund
B lack Men Walking runs at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester , from January 18 to February 3, and then tours until April 28