“Wynter’s script is light footed and fast paced, packed with witty one liners, but unafraid of sombre, more human moments”
Black Superhero is a fresh and exciting exploration of black queer love, and representation, which effortlessly manages to straddle the personal and political.
David (played by writer Danny Lee Wynter) is a struggling actor, trying to stay true to his principals about black queer representation, but also trying to pay the rent. He is in love with his best friend, King (Dyllón Burnside) and King has just opened his marriage. However, what unfolds is not a love story, but a power struggle of hero-worship, self-loathing and the inevitable spiral into dark and familiar places.
Wynter’s script is light footed and fast paced, packed with witty one liners, but unafraid of sombre, more human moments. While questions of representation, particularly about whether queer actors should play queer parts, and queer baiting, do dominate the discussion, they are handled lightly. There are no tired and long-winded explanations, this is a play which expects a level of knowledge from its audience. As such it can dabble in the conversation, without getting weighed down by it. Also, it’s very funny. The biting satire of the white characters had the audience groaning, wincing and cackling. Yet the emotional connections felt real, and the depictions of joy were a pleasure. At one point David, speaking about the film Moonlight, comments on a lack of representation of queer joy. It is striking how much laughter (especially in the first half) does dominate the characters’ interactions.
Daniel Evans’ direction allows the play to bridge fantasy and reality but remain grounded in the present. The presence of an actual superhero on stage is bold, and at times a little clunky, but when it works, it works very well. There is a hilarious moment where superheroes in garish costumes are suspended in mid-air, parroting the ridiculous exposition all too familiar in blockbuster sci-fi. There is also an incredible moment where David is enveloped by a giant cape, occupying most of the stage.
Rochenda Sandall as David’s sister Syd was a real standout. She navigated the complex emotional role with energy and passion. She was both moving and hilarious.
Joanna Scotcher’s set is dynamic and futuristic. A huge metallic screen takes up much of the stage, made up of intersecting triangles whose borders occasionally glow (thanks to Ryan Day’s thoughtful lighting design). This screen bursts apart to reveal a bedroom, a party and at one point an intergalactic meeting spot. Sometimes though it means the action is cramped onto a small part of the stage, making it uncertain whether the set dominated some of the directorial decisions. There is one particular set piece, involving a waterfall made of sand, which is striking and beautiful and incredibly memorable.
While it’s true that the play loses steam a bit in the second half, it is original and somehow manages to have a new angle on questions of representation. In terms of representation itself, it is interesting how revolutionary it feels to see three gay black men kissing on stage. And also, crucially, being allowed to laugh, as well as cry.
“What really gets the blood flowing is the showmanship and the staging.”
One cannot fail to see the serendipitous irony of Newsies: The Musical’s UK premiere. The official website, in sepia tones of old newsprint, has the format of a daily rag. “Newsies Go On Strike! Read More” is the headline splashed across the homepage. Similar headlines dominate the front pages of the evening tabloids that litter the street corners as we make our way to the theatre, negotiating the travel chaos caused by the current strike action. If nothing else, the timing of “Newsies” is spot on.
The struggles of the protagonists; the issues of homelessness, exploitation, security, solidarity and capitalism are going to resonate strongly, even though the plot, based on historical fact, is over a century old. As the dawn of the twentieth century approaches, the ubiquitous bands of teenage newspaper sellers dream of a better life away from the hardship of the streets of New York City. These young men, and women, come together to fight the exploitation of the wealthy publishing tycoons who are callously hiking up the prices they pay for the papers they sell.
The realism is spot on. Morgan Large’s impressive scaffold set immerses us right into the heart of Manhattan. The grim fire escapes and sidewalks soon burst into the cacophonous chorus as the ‘Newsies’ come scampering from all corners of the auditorium to explode onto the stage in a glorious, rush hour frenzy. It seems they are celebrating their misfortunes. Indeed, lead player Jack Kelly (Michael Ahomka-Lindsay) is portrayed as having chosen his fate. Consequently Ahomka-Lindsay lacks the fire of the real life ‘Kid Blink’ on which the character is based. Kid Blink was not yet a teenager when he addressed over two thousand strikers to lead them in the battle against the publishers. Jack Kelly’s character replaces fire with charm and courage with charisma, throwing in a roving eye for the daughter of the enemy.
If the plot is sweetened somewhat (this is based on a Disney film after all), the execution is a sharp, exhilarating and sometimes overwhelming spectacle. Director Matt Cole’s choreography is both bombastic and balletic. Not always in tune with the subject matter, it nevertheless thrills us and coaxes us into repeated standing ovations – even before interval. The space is as wide as it is high and at one point the dancers even occupy the airspace during the stunning number “King of New York” at the opening of Act Two. The more plaintive ballads do not fare so well, with the lyrics occasionally getting lost in the cavernous auditorium. Likewise, the subtleties and subplots lose their way amidst the sheer, larger-than-life displays.
Bronté Barbé, as Katherine Plumber, a young reporter eager for a story, shadows Kelly in his fight for justice, spreading the word, assuaging his doubts and eventually becoming his ally. A touch two-dimensional to totally believe in the passion that spurs her on, Barbé has the requisite defiance to win us over. Newspaper tycoon, Joseph Pulitzer, is unavoidably a caricature but Cameron Blakely makes the best of the Scrooge-like bad guy turned good(ish). But it is clear that we are not required to dig deep into character or plot. That vein is thin. What really gets the blood flowing is the showmanship and the staging.
“Keep your eyes on the stars and your feet on the ground” is a piece of advice given to the strikers, “and you will win”. It’s no spoiler to reveal that they did indeed win. But these stunning triple-threat performers won our standing ovation too – even though they rarely kept their feet on the ground. They are the stars that we, the audience, keep our eyes on.