Writer: Ryan Calais Cameron
Director: Tristan Fynn-Aiduenu
The fact that black men are most at risk of suicide is a chilling statistic. There are many reasons why black men choose to end their lives, and for tackling these issues Ryan Calais Cameron’s new play is an important one. However, despite the multiplicity of voices on display, we only hear from heterosexual men, which means that the stereotypes connected to black masculinity are just as much perpetuated as they are deconstructed.
Six black men in dressed in vibrant colours take turns in telling their stories. The start of the play is alive with discussion as they argue and disagree with each other, illustrating that there is not one single black experience. Obsidian will not use the N-word, whichever way it’s spelled, as for him it will always refers to the times when black people were enslaved and lynched. Sable suggests that word now symbolizes a sense of brotherhood. Onyx complains about whitewashing – the word used for when black men follow a life that a white man would lead – but Obsidian supports black men who go to university; education is for everyone.
These lively debates come interspersed with longer monologues, elegantly written by Cameron, the writer behind the hit show Queens of Sheba that looked at black women’s experiences. We hear from Onyx who was regularly beaten by his father and from Jet whose father died from prostate cancer, refusing treatment because he thought it was somehow unmanly. But to counter these tales of hardship and heartache, there are also episodes of bravado where the six men josh around and dance, exuberantly being men. In these segments For Black Boys… is reminiscent of The PappyShow’s Boys, an energetic celebration of what it means to be a man.
After the break, and in a nice touch, the actors have swapped clothes and a trampoline has appeared in Anna Reid’s playful set. In this section the men discuss love, and despite expectations each voice speaks of heterosexual love. The monologue by Jet may be more ambiguous as the object of his desire is referred to as ‘you’, but if this is to be Cameron’s queer entry into his wealth of voices why is it not explicit as the other tales of love and lust?
Accompanying the men’s stories is a great soundtrack, but sometimes director Tristan Fynn-Aiduenu pushes too far in the party direction meaning that words and views get lost as the audience becomes caught up in the music. The swagger of the actors is infectious but subtleties are often misplaced. Are the actors parodying the worst parts of masculinity or are they condoning it? It didn’t help that some parts of the audience on press night cheered whatever the actors were doing on stage.
The acting, however, is flawless. In his professional debut Nnabiko Ejimofor is incredible as Jet and truly brings out the poetry in Cameron’s writing. Also debuting is Darragh Hand whose Sable bounces with taut energy and he, too, nails the rhythm of the script. Pitch played by Emmanuel Akwafo is nervous and quiet while Mark Akintimehin’s Onyx is grounded yet frustrated. Kaine Lawrence, also in his professional debut, plays Midnight, damaged by an incident from the past while Aruna Jalloh’s Obsidian appears the most sorted of all of them. Together they form a powerful ensemble.
There are so many stories in Black Boys Who… that it seems unforgivable that there is not a clear queer black voice, especially when statistics show that young gay/queer men are also at increased risk of suicide. All the excitement on the stage fails to cover up this glaring omission.
Runs until 6 November 2021