'BLACK SUPERHERO' review — a charismatic carnival of incident and emotion

Read our three-star review of Danny Lee Wynter's debut play, BLACK SUPERHERO, currently playing through 29 April. Get BLACK SUPERHERO tickets on London Theatre.

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

Superheroes are having their moment on the London stage. The musical Eugenius! posits a teenager in imaginative thrall to the Marvel comic likes of Tough Man and Super Hot Lady. Not far away, the Royal Court is hosting the playwriting debut of its leading man, Danny Lee Wynter, who plays a self-doubting queer English actor called David who dreams of playing Hamlet but is destined more likely to be Horatio.

The object of David’s affections is an American chum called King (played by Pose alumnus Dyllón Burnside), who has found screen renown in a franchise as a formidably attired superhero known as Craw. Also Black and gay — but openly married, unlike David, who is single — King further upends David’s already-fragile state of mind in a play that moves from the personal to the political, from domestic scenes with David’s sister Syd (Rochenda Sandall) to carnal encounters that swirl from London to Australia.

David’s life is a carnival of incident and emotion: a sex-intensive merry-go-round kept sizzlingly alive by the play’s director Daniel Evans, another multi-hyphenate and one of the two incumbent artistic directors of the RSC.

Even when it fires in too many directions at once — which is much of the time — BLACK SUPERHERO courses with a singular energy and fervour that more than compensate for the occasionally pro forma language. “I invite you here, and this is how you repay me” is the kind of line you’ll have heard often before, here overridden by a collective investment in the material that makes something clear-eyed and bracing of potential cliché.

You’ve certainly come across plays elsewhere (Harvey Fierstein made a specialty of them early on) in which a hesitant gay man nonetheless finds himself amid a spiralling vortex of desire that is exciting on the one hand and potentially ruinous on the other. It doesn’t help David to come across a potential bedmate who identifies as “a straight man that does gay things” – which itself sounds a lot like Roy Cohn in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America.

The play asserts a unique cultural breadth. Not in some while have I seen a play that could accommodate both Peppa Pig and Voltaire, that latter citation given added piquancy by the fact that Evans, back in his acting days, played the title role in Candide for the National Theatre.

Some nods are more oblique than others — a veiled glance toward the recent London revival of Death of a Salesman or a pointed barb in the direction of Camilla Parker Bowles that made the press night audience gasp.

This is the kind of nervy, up-for-anything play that the Court exists to do and has strangely shied away from in recent months in favour of one show or another that functioned as staged apologies of sorts.

I mean it as a compliment to say that Wynter’s writing feels as if it could be teased out yet further. The roll call of names (Ava DuVernay, Streisand, Darren Criss, Forest Whitaker) is entertaining enough but comes at the price of proper investigation of the interactions on view — there’s enough going on between David and Syd, for instance, to merit a further scene that, on this evidence, would seem to be missing. (Syd’s anger in the second act seems very extreme, very fast.)

There’s also an occasional whiff of self-pity to this portrait of “a good man [David] in a bad world” when the character is in fact as flawed as we all are and is engaged in ways both large and small in working his way through the whirligig of life. Wynter co-starred in the recent National revival of The Normal Heart, so knows firsthand about plays whose creators give themselves centre-stage, and there’s a comparable sense of the author-as-activist to this play, as well.

The acting, as expected, could not be bettered. The wonderful Ben Allen makes all of his various roles count, amongst them the travel writer from Ealing, Steven, who has perhaps less claim on King than has been assumed. Eloka Ivo is in impressive form, not least physically, as yet another actor whose success amplifies David’s anxiety about his career.

Burnside comes effortlessly by the charisma needed for the philandering King, who exists in his celluloid alter ego to invade first David’s mind and then his body. And when that screen iteration, Craw, is seen in full amplitude at the end of the first act, the effect is akin to the comparable takeover achieved onstage by Tony Kushner’s angel: a rapt audience is stunned into silence.

BLACK SUPERHERO is at the Royal Court through 29 April. Book BLACK SUPERHERO tickets on London Theatre.

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Photo credit: Danny Lee Wynter and Eloka Ivo (Photo by Johan Persson)

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