This joint production from Nitro, the black musical theatre company and The Albany, explores how your ancestry can affect your present through the intertwined stories of troubled hoodie Soldier Boy and Desert Man. Stabbed on Deptford Beach, Soldier Boy cries for his mother and it is this stranger from Mali 300 years ago who comes to his aid. They transcend the inner cities of south London to slave ships on the open seas in sharing the absurdity and brutality of their history which shapes their future.
This has a great premise where storylines collapse into, reinforce, and extend each other across the Americas, Africa, UK, and Australia. A passionate Emmanuel Idowu plays Soldier Boy – a crass and angry 16-year-old born on the date that Stephen Lawrence was murdered. He’s from a broken home – with a prostitute mother and an absent drunkard father who begs for handouts.
However, it is difficult to sympathize with Soldier Boy as he is so obstinate and arrogant – his vulnerability is lost. “What boat did you jump off?” he sneers at Desert Man (Femi Ogunbanjo) when he first encounters him on Deptford Beach. This place, by the way is real – unknown to many locals – where Ravensbrooke River hits the Thames. Director Felix Cross describes it as “muddy green-ish stuff that could, at a squeeze be called sand; just don’t bother going with your bucket and spade.”
Writer Mojisola Adebayo skillfully mixes black British vernacular with lyrical writing paving the way for amusing quips such as the old slave lady (Maureen Hibbert) telling Soldier Boy and Desert Man to escape from Massa because he’s furious that Desert Man has impregnated the beautiful house slave girl, Jenny (Elexi Walker). “If you see an old woman running, don’t ask questions – run too.”
Although Cross writes that the play was inspired by the stories that some of the original convict settlers from England to Australia were freed African slaves branded criminals by draconian punishment for stealing a loaf of bread, this is a footnote in the overall production which concentrates on Soldier Boy’s self realisation through his history trip with Desert Man.
“Writer Mojisola Adebayo skillfully mixes black British vernacular with lyrical writing paving the way for amusing quips.”
Using dance and an eclectic mix of modern and traditional musical styles from Mali to hip hop, from gospel to rap, the play draws upon an a capella approach to African storytelling. Sometimes it’s not quite polished with off key singing and where you’d expect a frantic energized pace, the ensemble cast meander through.
Cross successfully creates two parallel worlds bridged by slavery; Desert Man’s one of order and structure where knowledge, stature, and rituals reigned in Timbuktu and chaos and disarray inhabited by Soldier Boy in 2009 where your enemies are no longer white men, but those that look like you.
The impact is lost though as Adebayo tries to address multiple problems facing black British youth: absent fathers; negative peer pressure; the effects of slavery on family structures; stereotypes, victimhood, and criminalisation; positive role models, and low self esteem arising from the lack of knowledge of Africa’s greatness before the slave trade. Nowhere more so are these all brought together in Soldier Boy’s final and reflective speech stabbed on Deptford Beach.
The consequence is that the production often feels like a heavy lecture veering from one aim to another – entertain, inform, and empower.