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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Jason Okundaye

‘If we’re in the building, you’ll know about it’: For Black Boys, the dynamic, daring play wowing the West End

A scene from For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When The Hue Gets Too Heavy.
A scene from For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When The Hue Gets Too Heavy. Photograph: Ali Wright

In 2011, when a 23-year-old Ryan Calais Cameron read Ntozake Shange’s 1976 choreopoem For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf, he was awakened to how theatre and storytelling could depart from traditional conventions. “I was like, this is incredible; I didn’t know you could create a play outside of the context of a finite structure, that was just non-linear, heartfelt, honest, raw,” he explains as we sit in the upstairs office of the Royal Court theatre in Sloane Square, central London.

While researching the theatre piece’s impact in 1970s New York, particularly on Black women, Cameron began to wonder what it might be like to have a production that spoke to the experience of young Black men. Being from south-east London, he considered the epidemic of knife crime in the early 2010s and the 2011 London riots, both of which indicated to him that there needed to be “another way to get through to us as young Black men”.

Ryan Calais Cameron at the Black British Theatre Awards last year.
Ryan Calais Cameron at the Black British Theatre Awards last year. Photograph: Darren Bell/Getty Images for BBTA

Then, in 2013, came the death of the Black American teenager Trayvon Martin. Cameron was profoundly affected, and remembers overhearing a conversation between two Black people on the tube discussing him, saying: “‘Yeah but … it’s a young Black boy in a hood.’ I remember thinking: ‘I’m a young Black boy in a hood, what does that mean? Does that mean my life doesn’t count for anything? I could be killed at anyone’s will just because they might have an inkling I’m dangerous. Why am I dangerous? How can somebody even from my own community condemn me to death before even knowing me?’”

Cameron decided that he needed an outlet for these feelings. It was either the pen or the sword, as he felt that without words he would “start punching up everything and burning things down”.

A decade, a production company called Nouveau Riche and multiple plays later, the result is Cameron’s own interpretation of a choreopoem, a genre defined by its blending of movement, dance, poetry and music, developed by Shange in 1974. This is the masterful For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Hue Gets Too Heavy. A multisensory piece built round a group therapy session with six Black boys, it blends playful repartee with real emotions and hardships.

The boys’ names are synonymous with Blackness – Onyx, Pitch, Jet, Midnight, Sable, Obsidian – and each of them bears the soft bellies of Black men who hope to be comforted, rather than eaten alive by each other. Each is distinct in their willingness to engage with group therapy; Onyx is the least interested in shedding his tough exterior, but interventions by the group reveal him to be needing the most care.

The play has experienced the kind of runaway success writer-director Cameron, now 34, had never imagined. Its sold-out premiere at London’s New Diorama theatre in 2021 was followed by another sold-out five-week run at the Royal Court in 2022. Both shows were met with the kind of organic hype that no marketing operation can fake.

For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When The Hue Gets Too Heavy
A scene from For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Hue Gets Too Heavy. Photograph: Ali Wright

“Who really sold the shows out were audiences,” Cameron says. “Online was going crazy. The hashtags, word of mouth, I’ve never seen it work so well. People came because they heard that there was this show on at this place in Chelsea and it was banging.” The buzz means it has been picked up for a West End debut at the Apollo theatre, with a six-week run beginning in March. The word-of-mouth operation has already begun without prompt: days after our conversation, the I May Destroy You Star Paapa Essiedu shares the news of For Black Boys’ West End debut on Instagram. The show, he tells me, is “one of the purest, bravest and most original pieces of theatre I’ve ever seen”.

But what has made the show so successful, and resonant, particularly for Black British audiences? For Cameron it’s in the title: the show was authentically made for Black boys, who were recruited in its development. He tells me that the group therapy format did not feature in early versions, but rather emerged during a research and development exercise in 2019: “We got Black boys to talk about thoughts and feelings. We had maybe six or seven, we spent a couple days with them. At first it was awkward, because we’re asking people to talk about things they don’t know how to talk about. When it really started lighting up the room it was electric; people were so forthcoming because, for them, it was like: ‘I’ve been wanting to say this stuff for my entire life.’ These boys come in hardened and by the end of it they feel so much lighter.”

He feels that these considerations have led to a play that audiences, especially Black audiences, fall in love with. And fall in love with the cast, too, of course. “The boys, man,” Cameron says, his voice melting as he thinks about them. “The chemistry they have with one another, and the journey they take audiences on. It’s an absolute rollercoaster.”

The cast’s chemistry is what I’m most taken by when I speak to five of the six boys over Zoom. They seem anxious to begin with: they’re not used to speaking with journalists, and are aware that the show that began with the intimate New Diorama run is due to meet bigger audiences. Rehearsals haven’t yet begun but they have sweaty palms; Aruna Jalloh, who plays Obsidian, tells me he’s nervous. “Everything’s new,” he says. “This journey, where For Black Boys is going, everything’s just novel. It’s a lot of love, a lot of attention and, I guess, a lot of responsibility for the kind of stories we’re telling.” Darragh Hand, who plays Sable, concurs: “The scale just keeps getting bigger and bigger.”

For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When The Hue Gets Too Heavy.
Nnabiko Ejimofor as Jet and Emmanuel Akwafo as Pitch in For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Hue Gets Too Heavy. Photograph: Ali Wright

The cast are dynamic even over pixels. Kaine Lawrence (Midnight) tells me: “I started acting when I was about 13, 14. I can’t lie, I was bad, mind, in school. I remember my teacher saw something in me. She said: ‘Audition for this musical Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.’ I got one of the main roles. It was a bit of a violation, though, because they had me as Augustus Gloop’s mum.”

Emmanuel Akwafo, who plays Pitch, tells me about Theophilus O Bailey, For Black Boys’ movement director, who had them working up a sweat from auditions to rehearsals. “I say he’s part robot, part beast machine, because he don’t get tired! He says it’s power over mind but my mind is telling me I’m tired so I wonder what yours is saying! He’ll do 10k runs, go to the gym, and then go to work where it’s a whole dance production, jumping, grinding, no, no, no, no, no!”

Where the cast really shine is affirming their brotherhood. When I ask about how they’ve built a relationship with one another, Mark Akintimehin (Onyx) says: “Listen. We’re a unit. I don’t call a lot of people my brothers, but when it comes to these, man? When we’re in the building, you know about it.” Hand adds: “When we’re in the building, you’re gonna know about it. If we’re in the building and one of us is missing, you’re gonna know about it as well.” I ask if that’s the case with their cast member, Nnabiko Ejimofor, who plays Jet, being missing from the Zoom. “Yeah, we call him Batman,” Jalloh laughs. “He’s off fighting crime right now.”

The boys all feel the play’s success comes down to it being, in Lawrence’s words, “unapologetic” in speaking to a Black male experience. While the work is imaginative, spectacular and defined by movement, it is also heavy, with material that makes you sit still. Jalloh also praises drama therapist Wabriya King, who has “been taking care of us. We all have sessions to help separate ourselves from the characters,” and each of the actors speak of the care they receive from Cameron and co-director Tristan Fynn-Aiduenu. They view the play as something that has taken on its own life.

From left … Kaine Lawrence, Darragh Hand and Aruna Jalloh in For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When The Hue Gets Too Heavy.
From left … Kaine Lawrence, Darragh Hand and Aruna Jalloh in For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Hue Gets Too Heavy. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

But what shouldn’t be expected is for the show to change or adapt to meet the artistic temperaments of a typical West End audience. As Cameron tells me, the priority will always be for those “who we’ve been riding with from the beginning”. Cameron had challenged the artistic directors at the New Diorama and Royal Court to create an experience where the show begins the moment you open the door; he notes that at both theatres the foyers played music from young Black artists, and featured portraits of smiling young Black men from Kay Rufai’s Smile-ing Boys Project.

His early conversations with the Apollo theatre made clear that he expects the same level of curation. With at least 100 tickets a night and the best seats in the house held back for young Black communities, and subsidised, discounted and free tickets made available for every show, the play is, and always will be, for Black boys. Indeed, as Tobi Kyeremateng, director of Black Ticket Project – which creates free access to cultural opportunities for young Black people across England – says, “For Black Boys has been the catalyst for many Black young people’s first theatre experiences, particularly young Black men. Black young people couldn’t stop talking about how special it felt to watch a show that felt like it was created for them.”

Cameron has another play, Retrograde, about the film star Sidney Poitier, premiering at north London’s Kiln theatre next month, but when it comes to his breakout work, ultimately it is Black boys to whom he answers. “It would’ve meant nothing to achieve all of this stuff, the awards, the sold-out shows, if young Black men turned around and said: ‘Nah. This ain’t it.’”

For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Hue Gets Too Heavy, Apollo theatre, London, 25 March to 7 May.

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