Ramblers who rewrote the script: Trailblazing group inspires theatre show

Thirteen years ago a group of men set off walking and didn’t stop. Now Daniel Dylan Wray discovers how their story is part of an ambitious new theatre project celebrating black history.

In 2004 Maxwell Ayamba, Donald Mclean and Mark Hutchinson began a walking group for black men in Sheffield. Originally designed to get people together for health and well being, as well as a sense of community camaraderie, now 13 years on it has become the inspiration for a new theatre production called Black Men Walking.

PIC: Jonathan Gawthorpe

PIC: Jonathan Gawthorpe

It’s produced by Eclipse Theatre and directed by the one-time Londoner but now Sheffield-based Dawn Walton, who, as a black woman herself, joined the walking group and was struck with inspiration whilst out with the group one day.

“We were walking along this flat road and I asked what it was and I was told it was an old Roman road,” Walton tells me. “I immediately thought about Septimius Severus, the black Roman Emperor who died in York. I realised this was a road he probably marched down and here I am 2,000 years later marching down the same road – it was quite an emotional moment for me.”

Walton’s production is part of a programme called Revolution Mix which has an ambition to deliver the largest amount of new black British productions ever and through the seven new touring productions, a series of radio dramas and a film hopes to show that there is more to the Black British story than slavery, immigration and teenage gang crime.

“These stories all come as a jumping off point of 500-plus years of black British history,” says Dawn. “Essentially, they are the missing stories of British history, we’re using these stories as a motivation for drama.”

Black Men Walking is the first of the productions. Beginning a 14-week run across the country from January 18, the stories of those who set up the walking group provided the inspiration for the devised piece.

“The spirit of them (the men from the walking group) lives within the piece; their love, camaraderie, their support for one another, the space that they’ve made for themselves,” says Walton says, adding that whilst the men who started the group are the primary impetus for the drama, the backdrop of the landscape will also will play a crucial role in the production,which includes much music and movement. “It’s a love letter to Yorkshire too,” Walton says. “To my adopted home.”

To get a better sense of the group, what it is about and its origins, we joined them for a Saturday morning ramble.

“We felt getting together a group of like-minded men for this group would help us physically as we were approaching that period of middle age,” McLean tells me as we cross over a footbridge and into another field heading out from Sheffield into the Peak District. Ayamba echoes this too: “This is a safe space, somewhere to bond with ourselves and to bond with nature. The landscapes, the views, the fresh air, it all relieves tension and when we get back we feel relaxed and happier.”

It was the group’s initial intention to recruit 100 black men all walking to improve their health. That target is something they are still aiming for, but the group has also developed too. Whilst it was men who started the group, women are now regular attendees too. There’s no membership, no commitment, just an organised walk once a month on the first Saturday and those who can make it are welcome.

This has led to other adventures however, with several members all getting together to walk up Ben Nevis. It’s a place that has become as vital for friendship as it has exercise, as McLean tells me.

“Friendship has been the number one thing. There have been some amazing friendships formed and solidified – deep friendships.”

Hutchinson is also keen to point out that the focused health benefits of such a group are also ones of mental health as well as physical health and in many ways this group has become a palce wherteb people can express themselves for mental health well-being, acting as a community and friendship support group as much as anything else.

“Through talking you can share how you feel and express hopes and desires. We felt that this would be a way for people to join us and also there’s, with a small p, a political sense to this or a social sense. The group is for black people to very much feel like this is our country, a country where you can walk and feel like it’s an activity that anybody and everybody can do.”

Hutchinson also feels tackling some of the antiquated issues around masculinity is central to the group too.

“We wanted to create an opportunity for men to talk because there was a feeling that that hadn’t always been the case, especially if you go back to our fathers’ generation. They often led very hard, physical lives, maybe working in a factory or something and they didn’t always have a chance to talk about their hopes and fears and dreams. We wanted to have those opportunities to share with people who would understand our lives.”

There’s also a fundamental feeling of becoming connected to a sense of place that they love and belong to but, as Walton feels she is showing through her productions, have perhaps been overlooked historically. “We wanted to remain plugged into our own communities but also to step back and think and reflect and provide opportunities to hear people’s voices, “ Hutchinson says. “Because often in the past these voices were marginalised or faced discrimination or put to one side, so it’s about making people feel valued and that they have a part to play.”

The group is also intended, as Ayamba says, to act as a means to intercept possible health issues in the future, ones that many members saw take their toll of their parents’ lives.

“A lot of people from our community have health issues. For example vitamin D deficiency is a big issue in our community because lack of exposure to the sun and vitamin D deficiency triggers all kind of illnesses. When you’re diagnosed, it’s too late. Some people don’t have the money to go to warmer climates and are trapped here and the winters are bad, so it’s about getting people out walking and getting vitamin D – it becomes about preventative measures.”

The backdrop of the walk takes in rolling landscapes and babbling brooks and hills and peaks with glorious views. The element of escape into complete immersive countryside just minutes from the bustle of a busy city has been key for the group and its development. For Ayamba, the walking needs to be done in the countryside.

“Walking is something most people take for granted but the difference between countryside walking and urban walking is that you have more time to reflect. It’s a time to meet people and bond with each other and escape from the urban environment, which can be less friendly.”

McLean feels incredibly grateful that the group has been a stimulus for a theatre production. “It’s flattering,” he says. “If we’ve been an inspiration to Dawn and the Eclipse Theatre and what they set out to do then it’s a privilege.” Ayamba shares this excitement and also adds: “Black people in the landscape of Britain is not something that has come to light, it’s not written about.”

Walton herself feels that ultimately this is a small part, or a microcosm of parts of history and culture that goes undocumented. “It’s going to be Britain like we haven’t seen it before and we learn more about ourselves by doing this. It’s not just black history, it’s all our history.”

Reflecting on the many years of walking, as the group venture comes to a close and we circle back around to the meeting point, Ayamba feels there has overall been a very welcoming presence on their longstanding country walks, not only in the environment but the people too.

Ultimately, he says, “You’re welcome because the countryside is for everybody.”

He hopes the next age of walkers will learn from what the group has achieved. “We’re paving the way for future generations to see that the countryside belongs to everyone and that they should take advantage.”

Black Men Walking goes on tour from January 18 and will be at West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, February 21 to 24; Hull Truck Theatre, February 27 to March 3; Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, April 9 to 12. eclipsetheatre.org.uk