It was a big deal when Abram Hill, one of the pioneers of black theatre and a co-founder of Harlem's American Negro Theatre (in 1940), had his play Walk Hard, Talk Loud staged on Broadway in 1942. Not just for him, but also for other African-American artists who were trying to break into the mainstream.
Another turning-point was the 1944 Broadway hit Anna Lucasta; originally the story of a Polish-American family by the white author Philip Yordan, it had been revised for a black cast after white theatre companies rejected it. In its most productive period, between 1940 and 1949, the ANT produced 19 plays, 12 from original scripts, and Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte passed through its ranks.
Despite Hill's cultural significance, Nicolas Kent, the artistic director of the Tricycle Theatre, in north London, happened to stumble on Walk Hard, Talk Loud while looking in a book of neglected black playwrights. "I tried to find out who had the rights to the play," Kent says. "But nobody had heard of Abram Hill." Kent eventually tracked down Hill's niece. "Her name is Lovely Billups, a former primary school teacher in Galveston, Texas, and she owned the rights," he says. "She didn't know much about her uncle either, except what she gathered from a couple of newspaper cuttings."
The play tells the story of a 19-year-old black boxer, Andy Whitman, who fights against corruption and racism in the boxing system. "I knew I wanted to direct this play after the first page," says Kent. "The dialogue was electric." The part of Andy Whitman goes to Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, who recently played Ken in the Tricycle's Playboy of the West Indies, but all the cast get to play "juicy roles", according to Kent.
Walk Hard, Talk Loud is the first of three British premieres in the African-American season at the Tricycle, to be staged over a six-month period. The others are Gem of the Ocean and Fabulation.
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