Updated: Nov 22
Review by Daz Gale
It’s not often a show can be described as a sensation before it’s even arrived in the West End but that’s exactly what’s happened with For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When The Hue Gets Too Heavy. From humble beginnings at New Diorama Theatre to a run at Royal Court to winning a Stage Debut award and being nominated for an Olivier, there has been a buzz for this show like no other. That can often be a double edged sword as when everybody is saying how special a show is, it can set a bar so impossibly high to match – as such, my expectations going in to this show were higher than anything I have seen recently. Would it ever be able to live up to that?
Ryan Calais Cameron’s For Black Boys… sees a group of six men unite to recount the past that shaped them and made them the man today, all the whole challenging perceptions, attitudes and the very ideas of manhood, taking a deep delve into the question of what it means to be a Black man in todays society and how this can affect your mental health. We hear these stories using a refreshingly versatile mixture of movement, music and storytelling.
There is plenty to unpack in Ryan Calais Camerons writing – the standard of which is so exceptional, words would be unable to do it justice. Observing situations from society past and present, throwing in pop culture references and using naturalistic language, the whole thing blends together beautifully forming a completely accessible performance to everybody viewing, screaming pure authenticity.
Two contrasting tones fill the narrative of For Black Boys… Moments of comedy veer into a more serious, dark and disturbing tone, often without a moments warning. I have seen other plays attempt to balance two similar tones like this on many an occasion and more often than not, it struggles to achieve the right balance, with serious moments falling flat as the audience were still laughing at an earlier moment. This isn’t a problem here whatsoever. The way the narrative shifts, sometimes for a fleeting moment, sometimes for a much longer beat is clearly defined and allows the audience to transport back and forth constantly, ensuring Ryans writing lands with the impact intended.
The moments of comedy in For Black Boys… show the talent and wit in the writing with some clever twists on wordplay and situations, sometimes bordering on absurd, which were clearly recognisable and relatable to many in the audience. It is the success of these lighter moments that makes the more sombre of topics land with such a gut punch, none more so as the show draws to its climax with a gritty and gripping discussion about the consequences of mental health, shining a light on an issue all too rarely discussed. Its themes of manhood and the confident way it challenges the perceptions of masculinity leads to a thought-provoking and powerful play with no shortage of depth – all delivered with sensitivity.
Ryan Calais Cameron also directs the event to a flawless standard, knowing exactly how he pictured his words playing out on stage and making sure these are executed meticulously. Anna Reid’s set design reveals itself after an interval to be a lot grander than initially suggested, marrying up to Rory Beatons lighting design, which provides a bigger influence to the aesthetic of stage than most, beautifully.
Movement plays a huge part in the play – directed by Theophilus O. Bailey, it is awe-inspiring to witness. From the silent opening where the movement is how we are introduced to the story to the way characters jump in and out of characters from an inspired use to the opportunities throughout the play to showcase the movement, this is truly a stunning use of the artform and elevates Ryans words to another level entirely.
Sound is another important factor in For Black Boys… with an inspired use of music interspersing the action. Dialogue can transform into music as cast members speak referring lyrics from some absolute classics that more often than not ended up with a party on stage (and in the audience) for the briefest of times. Members of the cast also get the opportunity to show off their impressive singing voices as moments threaten to turn into a full blown musical… but keeps firmly as a play where sound and music are a key part. Sound designer and composer Nicola T. Chang brings these together remarkably, with sound also working well with the movement to bring characters back into reality. A special mention must also go to the flawless playlist pre-show and in the interval – if you’re anything like me, you won’t want to leave your seat!
There is no lead performer in this production – instead, each of the six actors get their turn in the spotlight while their fellow cast members back them up. This repeats consistently throughout the play in a refreshingly equal display. The cast themselves are truly magnificent with Mark Akintimehin, Emmenaule Akwafo, Nnabiko Ejimofor, Darragh Hand, Aruna Jalloh and Kaine Lawrence bringing these words to life in a truly impressive feat of character acting where they completely become the roles they are playing.
While the characters names aren’texplicitly mentioned in For Black Boys… they are listed in the programme. As Onyx, Mark Akintimehin has a brilliant sense of bravado as he channels the alpha-male and what exactly that means. His character journey is a slower build than the others but ids all the more impactful when his character does let the walls down. Emmanuel Akwafos performance as Pitch would be scene-stealing among any other cast with his perfectly expressionate facial movements and mannerisms as he charts a more unique and complex character than perhaps the others. As Jet, Nnabiko Ejimofor impresses with his use of movement and characterisation including a masterclass in conveying an emotional story as he recounts a moment from his past.
Darragh Hand is the perfect ladies man as Sable though his cool and calm nature masks a deeper pain. As Obsidian, Aruna Jalloh at times feels at odds with the majority of the others as his views can differ somewhat, but the conversations this show can open up is a testament to its strength, and his description of what he loves about the woman he’s dating is a joy to behold. The six are completed by Kaine Lawrence as Midnight, who blends the line between comedy and drama completely effortlessly to create a well-rounded and intriguing character. Between the six of them, the acting is out of this world. You often forget you are watching actors acting, such is the level of their immense talent as they give everything to a performance that clearly means a lot to each of them.
For Black Boys… has already received plenty of plaudits for its two previous runs and it really isn’t hard to see why. So what makes it so- special? The simpler question to ask would be what doesn’t? Every single element about this production is as perfect as it gets. Ryan Calais Cameron’s writing is as genius as it gets particularly with the effortless way it navigates contrasting tones. His direction is equally impressive as are every production element involved in this show to create something absolutely magnificent. Then of course there are the phenomenal cast who understood what they were there to do with their performances and in doing so created some of the finest feats of acting I have ever seen.
Is that to say every show where every element is a resounding success is THIS good? Not quite. The thing that elevates For Black Boys… to a God tier level is how it makes you feel. The way it challenges perceptions of society and masculinity and conveys thoughts and feelings throughout past generations in such an accessible way, every person in the audience will be able to relate regardless of race, religion, sexuality or gender identity. Its unflinching approach to difficult themes regarding mental health are admirable and can do more good in the world that anyone would be able to comprehend. The impact of the shows closing minutes resulting in a deathly silence to a captivated audience culminated with a post-show message confirming audience members can remain in their seats to reflect if they so wish. That isn’t something that happens every day.
If theatre at its best can make you think and feel, For Black Boys… does that better than anyone. Completely faultless in its execution, this powerful and thought=provoking show is without a shadow of a doubt the best play of the year so far – I’d be very surprised if anything else could reach this standard as the year progresses. This is the kind of show the West End has been crying out for and one that I am glad has been given a chance on Shaftesbury Avenue, if only for a limited run. For Black Boys… is a show I firmly believe everybody needs to see, and one that will stay in my mind for a long while yet.
For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When The Hue Gets Too Heavy plays a limited run at the Apollo Theatre until 7th May. Tickets from nimaxtheatres.com
Photos by Ali Wright