A new play by the popular poet Benjamin Zephaniah is helping to spread the word about cancer screening, particularly among African-Caribbean men

It takes all sorts, but still, there aren't many people who would consider a demonstration of a rectal examination a good night out. Throw in some instruction on healthy eating and exercise and you would probably lose even the most committed scatologist. Yet on Wednesday night, the Hackney Empire in east London saw queues of people waiting in the cold for just that.

The real reason they were there was that this particular piece of agitprop was written by the popular dub poet Benjamin Zephaniah. For many, the fact it was commissioned by the Prostate Cancer Charity to raise awareness among African-Caribbean men that they are particularly susceptible to prostate cancer was irrelevant. And that was the point.

De Botty Business is a comedy set in a West Midlands barber shop, owned by Jamaican couple Mr and Mrs Maxwell and run by their Rastafarian son Marky. Up until the day we join him, Marky's greatest problem in life is that he would rather be running the world's first Rasta airline - with flights daily between Jamaica and Ethiopia - than cutting hair. But on this fateful day, his father returns from some routine blood tests to proclaim that he is dying.

Dispelling myths

Lots of wailing and confusion ensues, until Mrs Maxwell clarifies: "It's prostate, not prostrate! Prostrate is a position!" All the same, Mr Maxwell would rather contemplate death than the prospect of a DRE - a digital rectal examination. Even an analogue rectal examination is out of the question, he says, and a wincing mime of what might be involved does nothing to persuade him otherwise.

As if the mental image of a DRE were not bad enough, it takes minutes for news of Mr Maxwell's "little problem with the boy" to fly around the community. Soon the barber shop is filled with friends offering dubious sympathy and even more suspect advice about the merits of obscure and possibly poisonous concoctions: anything to avoid the fate of a GP sticking his finger up one's bottom.

A few more bottom and willy jokes later and Mr Maxwell is shocked to see his friend Johnson walk into the room. Johnson had been through the dreaded DRE and was long since assumed dead. But it turns out he has been living it up in Jamaica and now returns with rum and the real low down on DREs, biopsies and, god forbid, female doctor's fingers.

Of course, the reality is a lot less daunting than the myth and eventually Mr Maxwell is won around.

Somewhere in there are other public health messages too: to cut down on the salt Caribbean recipes seem to demand; to get checked out yearly from the age of 40; and that tomatoes and pomegranate juice can have a mitigating effect on the development of prostate cancer.

After its packed opening night in London, the production will be on regional tour from 10-14 March. "I want this play to get to people who don't go to the theatre," said Zephaniah - all the tour performances will be in African-Caribbean community centres rather than theatres. If those audiences are as full and entertained as Hackney was on Wednesday, he and the Prostate Cancer Charity will have done far more than that.

De Botty Business tour dates:

  • Monday 10 March 2008 - Bristol

  • Tuesday 11 March 2008 - Birmingham

  • Wednesday 12 March 2008 - West Bromwich

  • Thursday 13 March 2008 - Leeds

  • Friday 14 March 2008 - Liverpool