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‘For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Hue Gets Too Heavy‘ review

  • Theatre, Experimental
  • 3 out of 5 stars
For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Hue Gets Too Heavy, Royal Court, 2022
Photo by Ali Wright
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Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

Smart and moving show about a group of young Black men caught up in an existential therapy session

It’s testament to the connection writer-director Ryan Calais Cameron’s play has made with audiences that ‘For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Hue Gets Too Heavy’ basically made its way from the tiny New Diorama Theatre to the prestigious main house of the Royal Court without any help at all from critics. It was barely reviewed prior to its transfer, but has been playing to sold-out, ovating houses from the word go. It did finally add a slew of warm reviews when it had its Royal Court press night earlier in April; unfortunately I wasn’t able to make it, but I caught up with it a couple of weeks before the end of its extended run – the whiff of a hit was unmistakable at a buzzing, sold-out matinee.

Six young Black men – whose listed names are varying synonyms for black, eg Jet, Sable – are having a freeform conversation about life, its challenges and their attitudes towards them. It’s a deliberately denaturalised situation. The men are hanging out in an empty space, memorably lit in vivid colours by Anna Reid and Rory Beaton. They’re chatting shit in a way that has an air of classic lads’ banter to it, but they seem not to know each other, and they’re also all baring the hell out of their souls – it has the feeling of a sort of cosmic group therapy session. Oh, and occasionally they perform an R&B number: a slow-burning a cappella take on Blackstreet’s ‘No Diggity is a particular highlight.

It’s a show about performative masculinity, specifically – if not exclusively – Black masculinity. It’s divided into two halves, each of the six performers gets a ‘bit’ in each, plus there’s a final section in which they discuss the suicidal thoughts each of them has experienced due to the pressures of living up to a series of impossible, contradictory standards and stereotypes. Topics covered range from abusive dads to not knowing how to talk to girls, and while the men’s names are wilfully generic, their personalities are anything but: Emmanuel Akwafo’s Pitch is a big, painfully awkward lad with a high voice and a tendency to get ribbed by the others, while Mark Akintimehin’s Onyx looks like he could pretty much have all five of the others at once, but gives us a startlingly clear and painful look at the trauma underpinning his aggressiveness.

I think it would make a really banging 90-minute show, but it’s a bit overlong at almost two-and-a-half hours: the need to give each actor a second moment in the spotlight drags it out a bit, and the subjects covered become increasingly predictable as the list of likely topics begins to be exhausted. The formula of us seeing one type of behaviour – promiscuity, for instance – brought to the fore then broken down gets a little structurally repetitive, if never actually boring. However, Cameron’s secret weapon – and that of his excellent cast – is humour. If ‘For Black Boys…’ can veer towards earnest cliché, there’s always a wickedly funny joke to undercut the seriousness, and Cameron has a wonderful ear for the merciless pisstaking patter of a group of lads. 

I think the leap to the Royal Court stage probably exposes some of the work’s limits. But in all honesty, that happens to a lot of shows specifically commissioned for that space. And most of them don’t have half the ticket sales or audience buzz that ‘For Black Boys’ has. I wasn’t as carried away as some, but Cameron clearly has a spectacular future ahead of him.

Andrzej Lukowski
Written by
Andrzej Lukowski

Details

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Price:
£12-£35. Runs 2hr 15min
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