Black Superhero and a Part-Essay on Theatre Etiquette @ Royal Court Review

With just a week to go before the end of Danny Lee Wynter’s debut this critic is being asked why review so late in the run. Well, generally a play does evolve after every night, audiences impact the mood, actors find new meanings in words, gain a comfortability in their roles and are emboldened to stray a little from the directors vision in the rehearsal rooms. In the case of the Black Superhero, we have an entirely different lead actor. Written to be performed by Wynter himself “due to personal circumstances, Danny Lee Wynter has taken the difficult decision to withdraw from playing the role of David”. So, let’s give Lewis Brown the chance to earn his flowers and also, continue the discourse by critics beyond first impressions.

There is a poster of the playwright Danny Lee Wynter clinging onto a buff black male superhero in tube stations across London. It’s revolutionary that black queer love is being normalised like this. I’m reminded of the poster of “Daddy” A Melodrama which also drew the audiences gaze to black male bodies. “I love the idea of intimacy between black bodies on stage” says Wynter in his interview with Esquire. And yet I was repelled by both images. Having been too long conditioned to join in with society’s unhealthy obsession I now question any use of male black bodies for promotion material. It’s the same response I get when Black History Month is dominated by stories about African American transatlantic slavery. Now having seen the play the lead image perfectly captures this show, it’s dark, intimate and desperate.

The show description leading with polyamory and hero worship similarly didn’t take my fancy which is odd, given that I’m queer, love talking about sex and have a healthy scepticism towards monogamy. So, I decide to pass on this particular Royal Court show and then a month later I find myself being lured into the Jerwood Theatre Downstairs on a Monday night with a £12 ticket. I had my curiosity piqued by a Twitter rumble brought to my attention by a Retweet by a playwright I admire babirye bukilwa (…blackbird hour, …cake) for their unrivalled honesty on stage in contemporary theatre.

On the 8 April Hassan Abdulrazzack (@abdulrazzal on Twitter), playwright and screenwriter, writes a thread about his thoughts on a young woman in the audience who was gagging in response to certain lines spoken my white actors, and the scenes which ensue, including a man who called out her behaviour as disruptive. She responded by asserting her right to express herself in the theatre any way she liked as she too had brought a ticket. Abdulrazzak then goes on to reflect on his experiences of theatre in Egypt as a child where it was commonplace to have audiences interact with actors in a vocal way.

That same day there is lively discourse on Theatre Twitter around the events in Manchester of two women “being dragged out of the upper circle of the theatre” (Manchester Evening News). Responses are polarised, with some using the incident to comment on the decline of behaviour in theatre since Covid. My immediate response is to roll my eyes. Would there be press around people being asked to leave a nightclub? Aptly, the last show on at the Royal Court, Sound of the Underground by Travis Alabanza, brings the issue of the arts in the night life being dismissed as proper art. Underlying the conversations around the incident at The Bodyguard is pressure to conform with theatre etiquette which is loaded with class and racial tensions.

Bola Agbaje sums it up with her Tweet “The people of this country are obsessed with quietness. Every space they’re in they demand silence. In people’s home. On the street, in gentrified neighbourhoods, on buses, theatres. All in the name of being respectful to others without taking into account OTHERS needs.” bukilwa damns the whole discourse as being part of respectability politics. It’s the same fight that nightlife  venues, artists and workers have to fight against developers and councils.

But back to the play, and the young woman who is being triggered by the lines in Black Superhero and their review “no stars, no safety, no joy, no clarity. Boring and triggering with no redemption or healing” @RachelShapes. Critics sing a similar tune with a suspicious four stars from The Guardian (as on reading the review it seemed to merit three stars not four), three stars from The Evening Standard and two stars from The Times.

I agree with most of the criticism that this play is flawed; it doesn’t know what it is or where it’s going. The characters are caricatures and one dimensional and the piss taking of white liberals is too safe and lacks any real edge. I find myself agreeing with Rachel Shapes, it’s triggering and boring. The jokes feel dated, and I definitely wasn’t the only one cringing at the second Harry Potter reference.

I don’t understand the excitement or originality some people are talking about. What’s unique about Black Superhero? If it’s about black gay bodies and stories on stage, Daddy transferred to the Almeida from across the pond last year, iPlayer brought us Pose, and didn’t we just have Bootycandy on at the Gate? You can’t just rely on it being a queer black story to say it’s original, there needs to be an approach, an angle, a story. The story we are promised about polyamory doesn’t really deliver, it’s more about unrequited love for a second rate actor, his successful, obnoxious friends and his working class sister played gorgeously by Rochenda Sandall (Small Axe, Line of Duty) that brings him back to reality.

The hero worship angle also falls apart because King, played by Dyllón Burnsid, is not likeable, he appears to just be there representing  typical celebrity behaviour of power play with money, smoothing things over to avoid conflict and bad press, enjoying unlimited supply of sex and drugs and to top it off in a relationship with the dullest white stereotypical gay man played by Ben Allen.

The most interesting part of the play is unfortunately underdeveloped and that is David’s battle with his mental health and his insights on the industry. The scene where it all starts to unravel is when the second act should have really begun, with his desire for sex playing a submissive in a DDLB roleplay with Hollywood insider Kweku played wonderfully by Ako Mitchell.

Fascinating is the people who are excited by this play, who seem to think it’s doing something radical and going against the grain of recent Royal Court programming which David Eldridge describes as “taking medicine that’s good for you”. I get what he’s saying generally in theatre, and what Wynter QT’s to Shapes, the purpose of theatre isn’t to heal. I see how Wynter’s play could have been different, but you’ve still got to  hold the audiences hand and take them with you. Wynter’s play feels a bit like a string of therapy sessions, interesting enough bearing your soul, but not much tying them together. It’s self-indulgent in that sense because we the audience become the therapist, sitting tight and nodding along. Black Superhero could have been something sexy and radical, but it lacked a storytellers touch.

Written by Tasnim Siddiqa Amin.

Follow Tasnim on Instagram: @tasnimsiddiqaamin & WordPress.

Black Superhero is currently showing until Saturday 29th April 2023 at the Royal Court Theatre. To find out more about the production, visit here…

Written by Theatrefullstop