When Joe Louis became heavyweight boxing champion of the world in 1937 - the first black champion in nearly 30 years - he also became a hero to millions of African Americans still seen by many whites as little more than slaves. The civil rights movement was in its early stages and segregation was a way of life. Boxing was seen as one of the few ways that young black men could escape poverty and deprivation.
Written in 1939 by Abram Hill, one of black America's most influential playwrights and directors, Walk Hard, Talk Loud tells the story of Andy Whitman, a young black American determined to follow in Louis's footsteps.
The fury of a race needed but not wanted burns throughout. Whitman can get work shining white men's shoes but is warned to avoid being spotted by a racist local policeman. A well-dressed drunk who initially angers Whitman for "shaming" his race turns out to be a highly educated man who has just been turned down for a job because of the colour of his skin.
Not everyone saw Joe Louis as a hero. Whitman's father, played brilliantly by Joseph Marcell, is initially reluctant to allow his son to follow Louis's path, insistent that he instead goes to college. The battle between a father who sees education as the best way out and a son who sees educated black people losing out to uneducated whites encapsulates the dilemma felt by so many African Americans growing up in a segregated America. Boxing, to Whitman, to Louis, to Muhammad Ali, is supposedly the great leveller. The boxer is in control of his own destiny. When Whitman first boxes and proves his talent to the kindly but desperate white manager he feels something he has never got from books: "I felt the world behind my boxing gloves."
Except, of course, it does not work like that - as Whitman quickly discovers. Boxing, like everything else in America at that time, was controlled by rich white men. Whitman is treated like dirt by the vicious and racist white boxing promoter who fixes fights against him.
This play is no masterpiece. Metaphors are spelled out and drummed home, leaving little for an audience to work out for themselves. The final scene manages to wrap all the loose ends up a little too neatly. A script written in this way now would not receive a second glance by a theatre with as strong a reputation as the Tricycle.
But Walk Hard, Talk Loud has to be seen in historical perspective. A better-written piece could have been commissioned on race relations in 1930s America but the Tricycle would be hard pressed to find anything with as much anger and frustration as Hill's work.
Nicolas Kent's production comes alive whenever Carmen Munroe's Becky (Andy's grandmother) or Marcell's Charlie (Andy's father) are on stage. Munroe and Marcell spark off each other to great effect, no more so than when they appear together in the first half. This is also when the play is at its funniest. The majority of Hill's quick-witted one-liners appear to have been written for Becky. Kobna Holdbrook-Smith, after a shaky start, impresses as Andy Whitman.
Despite its slightly mawkish ending, Walk Hard, Talk Loud's vivid portrayal of the barriers, injustice and plain nasty racism that blighted the US is an impressive addition to the Tricycle's African American season.
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