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Theatre Gripping homage to Hampton

SIMON PARSONS recommends a memorable tribute to a black US socialist

Messiah
Stratford Circus London/Touring

FRED Hampton, the charismatic socialist activist about to be appointed Chief of Staff of the Black Panther Party (BPP), was only 21 when, under an FBI directive, he was gunned down in his bed by the Chicago police half a century ago.

As the potential leader of the BPP, his social programme for impoverished children, establishing free public-health clinics and supporting families of imprisoned blacks had drawn much attention, including FBI director J Edgar Hoover's paranoid, rabid fears that a "black Messiah" might unite oppressed ethnic groups.

Co-writer and director Jesse Briton has used the 50th anniversary of Hampton's death to remember the brutal assassination of a man who coined the phrase “Rainbow Coalition" in his attempts to unite the Chicago street gangs in a non-aggression pact.

Bear Trap's gripping production deals with the circumstances of his tragic death by staging a sometimes surreal reconstruction of events, where both police and victims are called on to argue their case.

On the traverse stage, Hampton's apartment is marked out in true crime-scene fashion, with tape on the floor. The lead officer's methodical statement of the raid, and the restrained response to the alleged violence the police encountered, is interspersed with the contrary, heart-felt accounts of some of the residents.

Lewis Hart's lead officer gives an effective, controlled performance as he mechanically repeats a well-polished testimony, in contrast to the youthful exuberance and sense of life and purpose of Shaq B Grant's Hampton and his heavily pregnant girlfriend Deborah Johnson (Angelina Chudi).

At times the need to establish the BPP's credentials feels slightly contrived, as when their 10-point programme is trotted out. But Briton's change of style, in examining racist attitudes via a sit- commish interlude and the warmth, affection and sense of fun shown between Hampton and Johnson, allows the human drama to shine through.

Neither Hart's sergeant, nor Gerel Falconer's bodyguard and snitch are two-dimensional villains —both are shown to be products of an unjust society. But it is the loving couple at the centre of this drama, so full of life and hope, that elevate this production to something memorable.

Tours until January 11, details: beartrap.org

 

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