sat 20/04/2024

For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Hue Gets Too Heavy, Apollo Theatre review - a turbo-charged, game-changing piece of theatre | reviews, news & interviews

For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Hue Gets Too Heavy, Apollo Theatre review - a turbo-charged, game-changing piece of theatre

For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Hue Gets Too Heavy, Apollo Theatre review - a turbo-charged, game-changing piece of theatre

A terrific ensemble make an exhilarating plea for Black boys with blighted lives

Moving on up Nnabiko Ekimofor, Aruna Jalloh, Kaine Lawrence, front, with Mark Akintimehin, Darragh Hand and Emmanuel Akwafo behindAli Wright

For a show that comes with a trigger warning about the themes of racism, gang violence, toxic relationships, sexual abuse, child abuse, domestic violence and suicide it will tackle, For Black Boys… is unexpectedly joyful.

Its thorny subjects are packaged into an exhilarating whirl of music, dance moves and punchy dialogue, performed by a gifted cast of six. But at its heart is a solemn shout-out for a better understanding of Black boys with blighted lives, “miseducated and misunderstood”. As we watch, they learn, crucially, what it would take to love themselves.

Ryan Calais Cameron, who also directs this staging, wrote the piece as a male companion piece to Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf, a 1976 piece she dubbed a choreo-poem. It has come to the West End via the Royal Court and New Diorama.

The staging is simple but stunning. The six actor-singer-dancers, in casual gear, first appear to a moody sax solo, stacked in a blue-lit pile of interlocked bodies that slowly unravels and writhes, much as the boys will untangle the knots tie-ing them down. They have handles that connote blackness (Jet, Obsidian, Pitch, Midnight, Sable, Onyx) but are now In an empty, vibrantly coloured space where they can act out their psychodramas and stories, some sweet and funny, others brutal or tearfully confessional. The lyrics on their favourite tracks coax them to voice their feelings or inspire them to launch into turbo-charged dance routines from videos of the tracks we are hearing. (Choreography is by Theophilus O Bailey. I could have watched the cast dance for as long as they had the stamina.)

The earliest story comes from Jet (Nnabiko Ejimofor) at six years old, wondering why all the girls in his class fancied a white boy, not him, as the other five actors hilariously portray the dizzy six-year-old girls playing kiss-chase. He tells his mother he wants to be White/right/light/liked. “What!?” howl the others, who pile in with their own viewpoints. Via this kind of process, the boys arrive at the big flashpoints in their lives. School and church or street-life? Wage-earner or Badman? One woman or none? Straight or gay? Does the N-word empower or destroy? Live or die?

Obsidian (Aruna Jalloh), the best educated of the group, thinks Black boys should study their pre-slavery history to find role models. His hero as a kid, he reveals, was an all-conquering Moor called Tariq, whom he deployed to do the bold things he didn’t dare to. Midnight (Kaine Lawrence) doesn’t believe Africans once ruled a big chunk of Europe, but then, he doesn’t read books and associates black history with being made to watch the miseries of slavery in Roots as a kid.

The police make an inevitable appearance. Sable (Darragh Hand) recalls discovering he was scary when he was stop-and-searched in Hackney at 13 and wondered what on earth he'd done. Tough-guy Onyx (a poignant Mark Akintimehin) tuts an answer, obvious to him: “Being black and aged 13 to 100.” Does the black community need more authoritative policing, as Pitch (Emmanel Akwafo) suggests? Onyx chews him out too: "If we need them, we’ll call them, innit!” (Huge cheer and applause from the audience at this line.)cast of For Black Boys...Onyx (pictured above, centre), in a great piece of writing in which he and Jet talk about their dads in almost the same terms but arrive at vastly different punchlines, traces his rise from brutalised boy who left home at 13 to weed-smoking gangsta who treats women as mere fuel. “Black man don’t fall in love,” he insists. Jet’s “perfect” father, on the other hand, sacrificed himself to his male pride, unable to tell his family he had cancer for three years. “I had to choose between my health and being a man.” 

Midnight’s biggest trauma erupts finally when he boasts about losing his virginity at nine, a story that is not what it seems; he has been left impotent and fatally low on self-esteem. Sable has parlayed his lighter, mixed-race skin into an endless round of sexual encounters: “Every woman loves chocolate… especially that Caramel Crunch.” That’s what being a man is, he believes.

At first sight, Pitch’s story is the least sombre. In a terrific turn by the roly-poly British-Ghanaian Akwafo, he confesses he used to pretend he was from St Kitts or the Virgin Islands as Caribbeans were so much cooler. But he has been reduced to wondering whether he is an Oreo, as a white girl called him approvingly: white inside and not Black enough to be Black.

What emerges from all the chat is a terrible truth: these boys are oppressed not just by majority white culture but also by their own. Church has been the only guiding light for some of them (Ejimofor does a barnstorming number as a fire-breathing Black pastor exhorting his congregation, “Blow your trumpet”). Mothers have proved unreliable or unavailable, fathers even more so. The boys have been fed the image of tough Black men, and bought into it. Obsidian, though, has been moved to ask whether he is “a different type of Black” because he shies away from conflict. He heartbreakingly describes looking deep into a scared Black boy’s eyes and seeing what hell looks like, “living life with death by his side”.

In the closing stretch, the boys relate what drove them to suicidal thoughts and offer a prayer for help, tellingly delivered in unison. It’s a powerful and moving finale that never goes over the top but is kept at a steady burn that sears the brain more effectively. A total triumph, and a game-changer for the West End.

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