Please note: This review – like the production itself – discusses the topics of masculinity, homophobia, trauma, suicide, racism, violence, domestic abuse, child abuse and terminal illness. Please take care when reading and click off this article if these subjects are triggering to you.
A self-care guide which contains all content warnings and support organisations are available on the Royal Court’s website.
For Black Boys… is a poetic and poignant panorama of the pain carried by Black men across the full breadth of their lived experience, a spectrum conveyed with colour and candour in writer Ryan Calais Cameron and Tristan Fynn-Aiduenu’s direction and Anna Reid’s rainbow set and costume design. There’s a perfect completeness to the script and its emotional exploration – from love to death, to joy and humour to anger and trauma – which makes it so utterly compelling.
Taking inspiration from Ntozake Shange’s 1976 choreopoem For Colored Girls…, Cameron introduces us to six Black men who meet in a group therapy session. Each of them is a common stereotype of this particular demographic, but that’s intentional as they each feel the weight of expectation pressing down on them. Emmanuel Akwafo is the endearing, soft and gentle Pitch who doesn’t meet the ‘tougher’ perception of Blackness, which is more embodied by self-proclaimed “badman” Onyx (Mark Akintimehin). Every idea is juxtaposed, critiqued and contrasted by another, as the entire ensemble bounces off each other with an electric energy. Different arguments over the use of the n-word – from reclamation and empowerment to ancestral oppression – are presented, and the perceptions of beauty; the experiences of Black queer individuals and toxic masculinity are all deconstructed in relation to Blackness, too.
As such, it is indisputable that this is a collective triumph among the six actors as both a group and as individuals. They reveal themselves as triple threats in terms of acting, singing and dancing by the second act, which opens up after the interval with the company dancing the ‘running man’ to “My Boo” by Ghost Town DJs in an iconic and hilarious flashback to the 2016 meme. Their shared Olivier nomination for Best Actor in a Supporting Role is so well-deserved, and a win tomorrow feels inevitable.
Of course, as a white review, there must come an acknowledgement that it doesn’t primarily speak to my experience, and there is an initial apprehension about laughing at jokes and cultural references outside of my own, but so soon does the play strike a comforting camaraderie that it disarms any tentativeness. In fact, the testimonies often transcend the central theme of race to become experiences to which we can all relate. Nnabiko Ejimofor gives a devastating performance as Jet when he casts his mind back to his father revealing his prostate cancer diagnosis. I was particularly winded by Pitch’s experience of worrying his mental health issues could prove too burdensome for a potential relationship.
It’s all too easy to connect to the powerful emotional purity at the core of this production, while classic tracks from Black artists – such as “No Diggity” and “Beautiful Girls” – aid the thematic transitions and provide the soundtrack to vibrant and visceral choreography from Theophilus O. Bailey. In a nod to Shange’s work, the play itself actually begins with an interpretative dance as Ejimofor – supported by the rest of the company who lift him up – moves with a fascinating fluidity. As he twists and contorts, it’s a striking symbolisation of the restrictions placed on Black boys, the denial of their agency and of the ability to ‘take up space’ (note how little space on the Apollo stage is afforded to the first act on grief in contrast to the second act, which is mostly about love). In yet another instance of the play’s well-rounded nature, the uplifting and care displayed by all six characters in its conclusion when each individual falters – even by Onyx, which is as charming as it is comedic – takes us back to the collective support offered in that initial opening routine, which draws us in immediately.
Richly layered and lyrical, For Black Boys’… long-awaited West End transfer (following runs at the New Diorama and Royal Court) reinvigorates this exceptional, emotionally charged masterpiece.
For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When The Hue Gets Too Heavy is now playing at the Apollo Theatre until 7 May.
Audio described, British Sign Language (BSL) interpreted and captioned performances are scheduled to take place on 29 April, 3 May and 4 May respectively.
Production Images: Ali Wright.
Disclaimer: I was invited to watch ‘For Black Boys…’ for free in exchange for a review of the performance as a member of the press. I did not receive payment for this article and all opinions stated above are honest and my own.