Playing at London’s Royal Court theatre, BLACK SUPERHERO is the debut play from Olivier-award nominated actor Danny Lee Wynter.
Wynter plays the protagonist, David, a gay man who still finds himself single as he’s approaching 40.
He has a supportive group of queer friends, but his career and love life are not going in the direction he wants. The big roles aren’t coming, and he’s harboring a long-running crush on King (Dyllón Burnside), a stunningly beautiful pal who’s found fame as the lead in a superhero movie franchise.
One night, King and David finally end up in bed together. King is now in an open relationship and open to the idea of being f*ck-buddies with his infatuated friend.
King invites David to join him at the tail end of a press tour to Australia, promising him it will be fun.
Of course, rather than the romance-filled getaway David pines for, the Australia trip ends up a drunken, drug-fuelled mess of crossed wires and miscommunication.
David finds himself forced to take a hard look at where he is in life. Can he make peace with the trauma of his past?
In Wynter’s own words, “I wanted to write a big, epic story that asks difficult questions about who and where we are. BLACK SUPERHERO is a love letter to the theater. A subversion of the historical notion that a Black, gay man — both in art and the world — is merely an adjunct, a side-note, an unserious man, or a source only of amusement. He can, of course, be fun, but he’s also many other things; things the world has made him; things he has learnt to be for his own survival.”
No Tea, No Shade
Given Wynter’s stated aims, it’s easy to approach BLACK SUPERHERO thinking it’s going to be an issue-heavy evening’s entertainment wrapped up in a ball of angst.
What’s unexpected is actually how funny it is. Yes, there are plenty of painful memories, awkward exchanges, and political point-scoring, but it also bristles with brutal humor. Wynter has said he’s been influenced by playwrights such as Jonathan Harvey (Beautiful Thing), and it shows.
The play features seven cast members. Emmy award-winning Dyllón Burnside (Pose and Dahmer) makes his London stage debut in the role of King.
Going by his Instagram postings, Burnside has undertaken some serious gym work for the role to convincingly portray an action-movie star. It’s no surprise David has the hots for him. Some might feel a brief naked moment of Burnside during a bedroom scene is worth the admission price alone.
Looks aside, his King is a man enjoying the trappings of fame but still constrained by notions of what he can and can’t reveal to the world. Or how he should and shouldn’t act.
Burnside and Wynter are ably supported by the rest of the cast. This includes Ako Mitchel as a “straight” movie business insider who does “gay things” when the opportunity arises. Dominic Holmes is a fabulously waspish Australian PR twink.
Directed by Daniel Evans, BLACK SUPERHERO is a sparse production set on a minimal set. Wynter throws in a few fantasy sequences when King appears as his superhero alter-ego, suspended by wires.
Let’s Have a Moment
BLACK SUPERHERO’s strength is its honesty and Wynter’s willingness to explore the forces that have shaped David, including racism, homophobia, and his family upbringing. One of his biggest supporters is his sister, Syd (played by Rochenda Sandall), who delivers some of the play’s best lines. She jokingly lambasts gays for fighting for the same things heterosexuals have, only to realize they wanted what they already had: “open relationships and lots of c*ck.”
There are perhaps a handful of places when the dialogue gets polemical. For example, David lectures friend Raheem about the importance of gay roles going to gay actors. Elsewhere, a press interviewer needles King with questions about his sexuality and brings up the issue of queer baiting. King tells fans he’s sexually “fluid” but hides the fact he actually has a male partner.
In the second half, David dominates a dinner table speech pointing out his issues with the Oscar-winning movie, Moonlight. Namely, a movie about a Black gay man struggling with his sexuality had no gay sex besides a beachside handjob. And did it have to be such a misery fest? “Even The Color Purple had a few laughs in it!” David argues, correctly pointing out that humor is an essential part of queer survival.
They’re all thought-provoking discussion points, for sure, even if they occasionally feel a little tacked on to the narrative.
The relationship between King and his white, liberalist husband, Steven (Ben Allen), also seems something of a mystery. But again… you know what? Other people’s relationships often are a mystery. Who doesn’t look at a friend’s relationship sometimes and wonder, “What does he see in him?”
The Last Word
The above are minor quibbles. What overshadows the play’s flaws is the likeability of BLACK SUPERHERO’s central characters. Halfway through the show, I found myself thinking, “I’d really like to see more of these friends.” One wonders if a TV dramedy centered on struggling actor David wouldn’t be a better vehicle for the many issues that are crammed into the play’s running time.
For now, though, a play is what we have. Go see it. Some of it will undoubtedly resonate greater with Black queer men. However, much of David’s experiences will strike a chord with all gay men, or indeed, anyone who has struggled to survive the ghosts of their past. And isn’t that most people?
BLACK SUPERHERO plays at London’s Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, Royal Court Theatre through April 29.
I’d love to see this play!