thu 25/07/2024

For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When The Hue Gets Too Heavy, Royal Court review - Black joy, pain, and beauty | reviews, news & interviews

For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When The Hue Gets Too Heavy, Royal Court review - Black joy, pain, and beauty

For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When The Hue Gets Too Heavy, Royal Court review - Black joy, pain, and beauty

With boisterous lyricism, Ryan Calais Cameron explores what it means to be a Black man

The trauma beneath the bravado: the cast of 'For Black Boys...' Bill Knight

The title is so long that the Royal Court’s neon red lettering only renders the first three words, followed by a telling ellipsis. But lyrical new play For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Hue Gets Too Heavy lives up to its weighty name.

Writer-director Ryan Calais Cameron shows us Black masculinity in all its nuances and contradictions, presented by six actors so naturally charming it’s impossible not to fall in love with them. This is an odyssey through Black masculinity, a complex navigation of a sea of troubles and expectations and joy and love. Line by line, each man’s soul is coaxed to the surface through the stories they tell their peers, laying bare the trauma beneath the bravado.

We start with Jet (Nnabiko Ejimofor) on the playground, wondering why none of the girls go for him when they play kiss chase. The most popular (white) boy in the school takes him under his wing, which six-year-old Jet is thrilled by: “this was before I knew White saviour complex was a ting.” Each character is colour-coded: blue, yellow, orange, red, purple, green. Anna Reid’s set is, too, with plastic primary-school chairs and vibrant walls.
The cast of 'For Black Boys' at the Royal Court TheatreThe effect emphasises the Black boys’ youth – for some, this is their stage debut. It’s also an element that Cameron has transferred from the inspiration for his play, Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf. Like Shange’s Black girls, Cameron’s boys tag each other into the spotlight, goaded into talking through their trauma even when they’re not quite ready for it.

The characters are named for shades of black, for the heavy hue they can’t set down. There’s anxious Pitch (Emmanuel Akwafo), academic Obsidian (Aruna Jalloh), flirty Sable (Darragh Hand), boisterous Midnight (Kaine Lawrence). In bits and pieces, through jokes and rap and rhythm, the boys show their soft underbellies: lack of confidence, low self-esteem, childhood sexual abuse. Onyx (Mark Akintimehin) is the least interested in being vulnerable – or at least, he seems that way at first. His intimidating swagger only cracks when he and Jet begin to act out each other’s father-son dynamics, and it becomes clear just how badly Onyx was treated as a child.

For Black Boys… premiered at the New Diorama Theatre on the corner of Regent’s Park in 2021. Maybe because of being (presumably) written in lockdown, it’s bursting with energy. The individuals are excellent – Lawrence’s heartbreaking reveal of Midnight’s childhood trauma is a standout – but the collective is what’s powerful, here. The myriad dance sequences and singing fit right in, unspooling naturally from the characters’ monologues. There’s an edge to them, though – in a world where Black mannerisms have been copied and twisted for non-Black amusement, the boys remind us that they are singing and dancing for themselves and each other first, and their audience second. It must be almost overwhelmingly cathartic, to perform this show as a Black man, saying the words of a Black man, about Black men.
The cast of 'For Black Boys' at the Royal Court TheatreThey don’t always agree with each other, of course. At several points, Obsidian reaches towards the other boys’ dance and pulls it down like an imaginary curtain, forcing them to stop and pay attention to what he wants to talk about. “You’re ruining it!” he insists, when Onyx wants to joke around. Through these six contrasting characters, Cameron is trying to work out what he thinks about being a Black man.

The confessors’ instinct when they are visibly emotional is to push hands away, but the others resist this, touching shoulders, cupping faces, pressing foreheads to their brothers’ backs. This is what will save them: connection, which stems from vulnerability. Gentle touch, in a world which tries its best to make them brutal. They are each other’s friends, brothers, fathers – even lovers. Ejimofor and Akwafo play out an achingly tender love story in a club, which melts away with the sunrise because their culture sees “homosexuality as a White man’s perversion.”

That glowing red version of the title becomes a neat summary. This play is for Black boys, for the Black boy Cameron was and the Black boys his sons are, for the Black men hiding Black boys inside them. The cast are visibly emotional at the play’s climax, where the characters assert themselves and their humanity. We emerge into a bar filled with portraits of Black boys beaming from ear to ear, as if they’ve been listening in.

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