In the past few years, you could be forgiven for thinking `black theatre' had burst onto the scene as a sudden, overnight thing. But a quick look at Nick Kent's Tricycle's programme for Walk Hard - Talk Loud reminds us that even just at this theatre, its roots go further back, both with black British, African writers and those from over the pond. Their first African-American play was in fact Lorraine Hansbury'sA Raisin in the Sun, in 1985. Elsewhere, British black actors had been hard at it, trying to gain a foothold from even earlier. By the '70s, the RSC were instituting their first cross-cultural companies.
Kent, famous for his political docu-dramas, is doing something remarkably similar here in creating a multicultural company for a season of plays covering 100 years of Afro-Caribbean experiences. The strengths of such a policy are plain to see in this inaugural production by the pioneering Afro-American writer and director, Abram Hill. Written in 1938 – Kent has claimed it is the first modern black play - it may creak a little but it gets a cracking work-out from a stellar cast including Carmen Munroe, practically the mother of British black acting (and a young actress in the Tricycle's 1985 Raisin in the Sun) and Joseph Marcell, an alumni of the RSC's 1970s companies and now hugely popular (particularly as Geoffrey, the butler in TV sit-com The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air) on both sides of the Atlantic.
Both bring weight and humour to a script that if chronicling a now familiar scenario of violence, gangsterism and ultimately a rediscovery of racial pride, carries the sharp-shooting twang of the best 40's movies.
“I wish I'd known you when you was alive”, Munroe's feisty grandmother, Becky, quips to her son, Charlie (Marcell) berating him for his negativity. More commendably still, Hill's portrait of discrimination carries a painful, raw immediacy as her grandson, young boxing talent, Andy Whitman (a proud, impatient Kobna Holdbrook-Smith) pays the price for defying attempts to deny him a hotel room.
And there is so much else to savour here: Kent's slick production that moves us from downtown New York to the sweaty ringside; and a terrific supporting cast that includes Rupert Farley's frighteningly convincing gangster chief, Lou, Stephen Beckett's sexist white prize-fighter, Larry Batchello, who befriends Andy, and Flora Montgomery as a gangster's moll suffering at the hands of rampant sexism.
A snappy if sometimes shocking reminder of the way things were, in the best tradition of the boxing movie, Walk Hard - Talk Loud mixes its punches, tickling the ribs then landing a killer punch. Great stuff.