We realise the central character wants to be saved a whole lot later than he does in Black Superhero. The debut play by The Normal Heart actor Danny Lee Wynter looks to be a candid tale of one man’s longing for dependency – and it is superlative with Daniel Evans’ direction and staging – but its sexy, raunchy comedy clouds David’s devastating reality.
Not in a metaphorical sense, either. Many of us will occupy ourselves with the fantastical if it offers us some respite from our painful present, of course, but in a theatrical sense, it’s hard for us to connect with David’s (Wynter) dream of a relationship with superhero actor King (Dyllón Burnside), if it’s not entirely clear what the travel writer needs rescuing from in the first place. A lot of that exposition eventually occurs in the second act, when David is spotlighted, or having a heart-to-heart with another character. His initial demeanour, which is politically correct, a tad sensitive and argumentative, would make a lot more sense if the audience knew the driving force behind it from the outset. Stories are always the most compelling when a protagonist’s ambitions are made clear as soon as possible, and here, it’s just too late, and too on-the-nose.
To Wynter’s credit, he does practise what he preaches in terms of the ideas explored in his debut. An argument put across passionately throughout by Daniel concerns queer representation – specifically gay actors playing gay roles and community stories reflecting the full breadth of an identity – and here we see an openly gay actor/playwright and director produce a play in which queer love is staged unashamedly. It’s undeniably refreshing to witness.
The difficulty arises in this same idea around representation being contradicted at the same time, as King is interviewed on the subject of ‘queerbaiting’ (originally defined the hinting or implication of a queer relationship between two fictional characters which never develops, but has since been warped to apply to real life individuals advocating for LGBTQ+ rights but not being open about their sexuality – see the recent case surrounding Heartstopper’s Kit Connor). At the same time as David making the case for authenticity, King seems to argue being so restrictive and limiting in creative decisions risks intruding into people’s private lives and depriving them of autonomy over their own sexuality. The ability to present both sides is commendable, but confusing.
Similarly, I was left wondering for the majority of the play what it was exactly that David sees in King which makes him so attractive to him. Is he indulging himself in the toxic notion that a partner in a relationship can ‘solve’ and ‘fix’ our own problems (a myth which would have been fascinating to explore in greater detail if so, as here the argument for better self care isn’t strongly reinforced beyond the odd mention of therapy), or – based on information provided towards the end of the play – is he looking for a father figure? Unfortunately, the script is so light on the stark discussions that not only do we not really get a well-rounded answer to this, but it means I struggled to enjoy the humour of the piece as it jolted between two vastly different tones. As bad as it sounds, it should have settled on just the one.
It’s frustrating because if ideas around race and sexuality aren’t juxtaposed in this play, then they are presented with little development. The final monologue before the interval sees David mention white saviours and the relationship Black people have with the concept of idolisation. Of course, the whole entire play is around a man looking up to a superhero, but it could well have gone further in interrogating just how differently conversations about idolisation vary between white and Black people, where the former are confident enough to place themselves on a pedestal with their supposed allyship. How does this affect Black people being able to trust and look up to people when so many people exploit that faith?
Well, at least Wynter takes a leaf out of The Boys’ book in terms of presenting a superhero (even one which is a persona) as a morally questionable individual, as King enters a relationship with David while being a married man. It’s implied he gets with a member of hotel staff when he jets off to Australia, but he also has a relationship with David’s friend Raheem (Eloka Ivo). It’s a pretty big embodiment of the ‘never meet your heroes’ idiom, but the healthier alternative – of relying upon a closer, trusted support network, such as his sister Syd (played with a charming balance of caring and no-nonsense by Line of Duty’s Rochenda Sandall) – is only properly underscored in Black Superhero’s conclusion.
While I would normally disconnect from productions which spend so little time on the hard-hitting emotion and integral message behind a story (in this case, it could have been a lot stronger on reinforcing the importance of independence and autonomy), Evans’ staging is excellent and engrossing. Set designer Joanna Scotcher and lighting designer Ryan Day unite to create a fascinating metallic feel to the show, with Scotcher’s triangular patterned set lurching out into the audience feeling futuristic and industrial.
On top of all this, while on-stage waterfalls seem to be all the rage at the moment, Evans tries something unique and impressive by having a downpour of sand amid several projections, before the small piles of sand made way for the beachy backdrop of the following scene in a seamless and astonishing transition. Although there’s no real superheroes in Black Superhero – and thus no one is saved from a burning building, let’s say – if it closed in on the challenges of hero worship, it could easily have saved time.
Black Superhero is now playing at the Royal Court Theatre until 29 April.
Captioned performances are scheduled for 12, 19 and 27 April. A relaxed performance takes place on 22 April with an audio described showing taking place on 29 April.
Production Images: Johan Persson.
Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘Black Superhero’ for free in exchange for a review of the performance as a member of the press. I did not receive payment for this article and all opinions stated above are honest and my own.