For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide... is a landmark moment in West End theatre
The last Royal Court transfer to the Apollo, Shaftesbury Avenue was Jez Butterworth’s mega-hit Jerusalem, revived there last spring. The latest – Ryan Calais Cameron’s For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Hue Gets Too Heavy – could hardly be more different, beginning with its mouthful of a title.
Yet, it’s no less exhilarating to watch – and its arrival in the West End (having begun life at fringe venue the New Diorama) feels like a huge moment, suggesting a generational breakthrough for black British playwrights in theatreland, and bolstered by it having been nominated as the Best New Play at the Olivier Awards.
Cameron gives us a free-form series of vignettes, punctuated with bouts of urban song and dance. These involve half a dozen young black men who, as if partaking in group therapy, unfold the fracturing experience of living in the city, with pressures of masculinity, family, society and history bearing down on them.
Obvious contrasts between the works aside, both express a mood of embattlement, defiance and even need for some kind of buried ancestral (and male) valour. And entertainment is at a premium too. The fact that the title nods to Ntozake Shange’s 1975 choreopoem (like this, a mixture of poetry, dance, music and acting) “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf” and that the characters, named after types of blackness (Jet, Onyx, Obsidian, etc), convene to reflect on lived experience, might make the show sound like an exercise in identity politics. But it’s a breath of fresh air, with a klaxon-loud sense of having something to say, for all to hear.
After a super-solemn opening tableau (tough-limbed movement by Theophilus O Bailey), depicting a mass of sculptured, writhing bodies battling tempestuous forces, we switch to a playground levity, with the buoyant sextet remembering formative instances of racial alienation. Nnabiko Ejimofor’s Jet recalls being spurned because of his skin-colour during a school kiss-chase, while Emmanuel Akwafo’s Pitch relives the realisation that he wasn’t seen as “Black enough”. Provocations zing about – the debatable value of Black history lessons that reinforce tropes of subjugation, the need to read books, yet the social stigma in doing so.
Emotionally unavailable - brutalised and brutal - fathers are a recurrent topic, as are patterns of ingrained self-loathing. As talk turns to the opposite sex, the writing perfectly blends light and shade, assumed levity and inner turmoil. Crippling shyness is recounted by the adorable Akwafo, visibly in knots about a “beautiful lady” on a bus, while Darragh Hand’s Sable is the twinkling ladies’ man who can’t commit because his “body-count” keeps his self-esteem alive. Ejimofor expresses the furtive longing of being “Black and queer”, obtaining a respite from his solitude in the transgressive embrace of Mark Akintimehin’s Onyx. It’s hard to single out performances; the ensemble, directed by Cameron, functions as one inseparable unit.
A feelgood show that plumbs the depths, then, and a choral cry to be heard that leaves you inspired not browbeaten. Not bad for a West End debut.
Until May 7. Tickets: 0330 333 4809; nimaxtheatres.com