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Review: For Black Boys... (Garrick Theatre)

Review by Sam Waite

 

⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

 

(Note – The use of “Black”, to refer to persons or characters, is capitalised in this review in keeping with Ryan Calais Cameron’s own use of capitalisation in the production’s programme, and to acknowledge the significance of race to the issues raised)

 

In the mid-70’s, Ntozake Shange debuted her award-winning For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf, coining the term “choreopoem” to describe her blend of music, movement and poetry. In the decades since, the play has influenced many young creatives, with Ryan Calais Cameron being so taken with the work that his own fringe darling-turned-West End juggernaut owes to Shange not just its conceptual bones, but it’s lengthy title.



For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Hue Gets Too Heavy begins in a group therapy session, though this conceit becomes looser in the second act. Six men, unnamed onstage but named for different shades of/synonyms for black on the page, discuss both the joys and sorrows of growing up as Black men. Acknowledging both their similarities and differences, the sextet work through deeply rooted and newly raised issues plaguing their mental well-being, through both monologue and movement, as well as cleverly utilised singing in act two. As outlined by the creative team, the singing represents freedom, one of many ways in which this powerful play examines not only Black men’s individual and collective traumas, but their shared and unique joys.

 

Calais Cameron directs his own work again in this second West End run, greatly helping the transitions from joyful exuberance to startling moments of gut-wrenching transparency – and there are many. While his work is very strong, one could argue that, given the physicality and dance influences on display, movement director/choreographer Theophilus O. Bailey is the one who makes his impact most apparent. Matching the style and musculature of the movement to the growing openness and fondness within the group, and to their move intuitive, emotionally bared mental states, Bailey’s choreography and blocking carry just as much weight as the stories themselves. In a world where Black bodies are viewed as aggressive and dominating, there’s a real beauty in seeing the differing levels of dynamism and softness they have to offer.



Given their continually connected roles and the overlapping nature of their work, it feels only right to assess the cast as a collective. While each brings a distinct and effective personality to their role, all take on supporting roles within each other’s stories as well as providing solid back up to moments of dance, movement, and musicianship. The group is made up of Tobi King Bakare (Onyx), Shakeel Haakim (Pitch), Fela Lufadeju (Jet), Albert Magashi (Sable), Mohammed Mansaray (Obsidian), and Posi Morakinyo (Midnight). All six bring strength and vulnerability, passion and dejectedness, emotional maturity and underdeveloped ideals, all to their work without missing an emotional beat or dropping the proverbial ball.

 

All involved bring their strong physicality and vocal abilities to the production, every auditionee having been asked to perform a monologue, a song, and a dance number. Through Calais Cameron and Bailey’s collaborative efforts, the range of skills showcased never feels overdone or shoehorned – in fact, it seems to follow an internal logic, that these boys would act out their moments of joy and of agony with such passion, such pent-up energy, that it couldn’t be limited to merely words spoken. With an infectious playlist before the curtain rises on For Black Boys, the use of music is both a powerful background to, and progressively a form of, the powerful and emotive storytelling on display.



Ryan Calais Cameron’s script is mature and provocative, jumping in and out of topics with an easy grace. With definitions of masculinity, homophobia, violence both in and outside of their homes, not feeling Black enough, and being seen as too Black among the many subjects tackled, it’s impressive how seamlessly Calais Cameron moves through them. Characters jump between thoughts and ideas with a conversational tone, and the writer’s nuanced understanding of these ideas is clear from how well his characters are able to outline their experiences without abandoning the therapeutic conceit. Musical director John Pfumojena helps blend the stories and lessons learned through his choices in music to reflect key moments in the characters’ lives and is also behind the arrangements of the cast’s own vocal contributions – some stunning harmonies help to remind us just how fraternal, united a group we are watching them become.

 

Visual elements are largely secondary here, the intention presumably being to not distract from the importance of the messages or the importance of the text. However, every element still serves a clear and important purpose. Lighting design from Rory Beaton helps to transition in and out of scenes at parties, nightclubs, and whatnot, as well as throwing those not speaking into darkness to emphasise our being brought into a character’s memory. In one moment of comparison, a character is brightly lit while he talks about his beloved father, while another is more dimly illuminated as he outlines his own father’s absences and abuses – the contrast helps soften the bluntness of his story, effectively preparing us for a darker upbringing at odds with a happier childhood. Anna Reid’s stage design is surprisingly effective, a semi-circle of chairs setting up the group session in act one, while the multi-coloured set evolves into a two-levelled design for act two. This allows us to imagine parks, blocks of flats, the floors of a club or of a home – anywhere these boys’ stories take us, the simple design allows them to introduce the locale.



Owing, as many works do, a great debt to Ntozake Shange, but far more than a retread of her classic work, For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When The Hue Gets Too Heavy is a testament to progress made, and a reminder of the progress still to be made. An immaculate text brought to the stage through a collaborative spirit and a clear understanding that no element of storytelling should be sidelined, this second West End run cements the piece as a modern classic with a long and inspiring future.

 

For Black Boys… plays at the Garrick Theatre until May 4th

 

 

Photos by Johan Persson

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