BLACK SUPERHERO, the debut play by Danny Lee Wynter, explores issues of race, queerness and identity politics.

When the mixed-race, queer lead character declares “Gays tend to praise work representin us for the fact it represents us at all, they rarely care for the quality of that representation”, it seems a daring quote, not least as it runs the risk of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

BLACK SUPERHERO (it is styled in all capitals, rather than The Recs shouting at you) begins with a friendship group of black and mixed race male actors written by actor-turned-writer Danny Lee Wynter. The drama’s main protagonist David (played by Wynter himself) is a gay, mixed race actor at something of a personal crossroads. His career is falling short, typically getting offered Horatio rather than Hamlet. He feels dwarfed by his best friends,  Raheem (Eloka Ivo) and King (Pose actor Dyllón Burnside) both physically and in terms of acting success. In particular, King’s lucrative role as Craw, the superhero in a worldwide-hit, Marvel-style franchise, has highlighted the inequality between the two. He’s also dependent upon his sister Syd (Rochenda Sandall) for a home and for income, helping with her work as a children’s entertainer. And David is recovering from an alluded-to mental health crisis. In short, all the ingredients are present for a mid-life crisis. 

All images by Johan Persson. Pictured Dyllón Burnside, Danny Lee Wynter

The friendship dynamic is disrupted when a proverbial grenade is thrown in with King (the alpha male if the name didn’t give it away) announcing that his marriage to white husband Steven is now an open-relationship. Given that David always carried a torch for his friend, he’s soon delighting in his own sexual production of The King and I

What Wynter the writer excels at is a pithy quip or a waspish joke. While the threadbare “so far at the back of the closet  we were in fuckin Narnia” and “Wagatha Christie” captures the predictable banter between gays, the playwright has moments of sublime wit. A Dad at a children’s party trying cop of with David when he was dressed as Peppa Pig is a glorious, icky mental image. The punchline to our current Queen Consort playing the long game drew shocked gasps. And a Harry Potter quidditch callback deservedly brought the house down.    

The first act mostly flies up, up and away, buoyed by laugh out loud humour but also by wonderfully-pitched performances from all the leads. Burnside brings genuine superstar gloss, Ivo nails the blinkered pragmatism of someone on his way up but the absolute flawless standout is Sandall’s rounded, earthy, fierce and funny Syd who perfectly balances her own dreams and future while protecting David from his past. 

Just as you might have a growing impression that despite the comedy there’s something a tad static and talky about BLACK SUPERHERO, we have the visual distraction of superhero fly-ins. Whilst the script has a character playing a superhero and the question being posed who should our heroes be, the woozy inclusion of caped crusaders never feels truly organic to the drama but rather a visual goosing of the audience’s interest. 

A skein of hot-button topics – can only gay actors play gay roles, when minorities have platforms do they use them effectively, showbiz queerbaiting, is impact of LGBTQIA+ history reduced to a bunch of rich gays taking the Brighton train to get smashed on MDMA – with a flutter of pop-culture references – Mahershala Ali in Moonlight, Jada Pinkett Smith’s Red Table Talk, Chris O’Donnell in Batman Forever – may offer a veneer of contemporary relevance but while BLACK SUPERHERO asks some pertinent questions, few potential answers are offered. 

The importance of representation permeates the work. And it does now more than ever. But returning to the quoted dialogue at the top of the review, representation doesn’t equate to insight. In a recent Esquire magazine, Wynter is quoted as saying “I’ve got to a point, as a black queer artist, who’s come from where I’ve come from, of ‘Fuck it’”.  However lines like “This kid, the one I’m telling you about. Fat fuck. Chunk from The Goonies” and quoting Tiffany Pollard’s 2016 CBB rant of “I would let Gemma know that she is a fat cunt” might get a laugh from the audience, but you are left wondering how that fits with the message of being seen positively.  And the dramatic scope of new plays surely should expand beyond an actors’ circle and the London-centric “Clapham gays are the worst”?

As the second act dispenses mostly with the sharp, comedy one-liners, the structural weakness of BLACK SUPERHERO become more apparent. Tonal lurches converge in a supposedly revelatory crisis (THE BIG SCENE as it would be cap-styled). That this is preceded by his now-pregnant sister Syd being left in the lurch, that his actor friend Raheem is being judged for not being an activist and that his new superstar lover King’s Australian press jaunt might have been fun but that David has made it miserable, leaves audiences struggling despite Wynter the actor’s best efforts  to empathise easily with David. A heightened-but-messy scene (we won’t spoil it) exposes the root of David’s issues but we’d be shocked if anyone didn’t see that coming even without the power of supersight.

There is something appealing and thought-provoking lurking under the cape of BLACK SUPERHERO. Despite the play’s suggestion that all heroes have feet of clay, the Royal Court needs to push and cajole new writers as well as giving them a platform. 

Frustratingly BLACK SUPERHERO fails to fly – ★★★


BLACK SUPERHERO will run at the Royal Court until 29 April

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