Review: For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When The Hue Gets Too Heavy, Royal Court Theatre ★★★★★

There is only one word that should be used to describe For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When The Hue Gets Too Heavy – ‘essential’. Yes, you could use words like ‘hilarious’, ‘heartbreaking’, ‘blistering’, ‘sensational’ – but none come as close to the mark as ‘essential’.

Ryan Calais Cameron’s play, originally produced at the New Diorama Theatre, is inspired by Ntozake Shange’s 1976 play For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf. While Shange’s play was comprised of twenty poems that explored the complexities of sisterhood, Cameron’s play, co-directed on this occasion by Cameron himself and original director  Tristan Fynn-Aiduenu, follows six black men as they navigate the complexities of manhood; from the playground to adulthood and all the trials and tribulations that come with it.

The cast of For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When The Hue Gets Too Heavy. Photo: Ali Wright

In the foreword to the playtext Cameron tells us that while Shange sought to empower the ‘singular and collective voices of Black women and Black female experiences’, For Black Boys… instead seeks to articulate ‘the heartache, confusion, rage and desires of young Black men’, seemingly in a much more multifaceted way, and how these pressures contribute to ‘emotional and mental trauma and the threat of additional Black suicides.’ The play was originally conceived following the 2013 killing of Trayvon Martin.

We begin on Anna Reid’s sparse set, covered in prime coloured hues by Lighting Designer Rory Beaton, with a piece of abstract modern dance from Movement Director Theophilus O. Bailey-Godson. A group of six young Black men writhe en masse in a tangle of arms from which one man emerges, morphing the piece into a break dance routine and then into a fight and an arrest – his arms held tightly behind his back, chest puffed in defiance.

Nanabiko Ejimofor and Emmanuel Akwafo. Photo: Ali Wright

From here Cameron dissects Black masculinity, toxic masculinity, reclaiming the N-word, Black History, heteronormativity and child molestation. The subjects are heavy but with a spoonful of glorious comedy Cameron makes the medicine go down without weakening the power of the message.

For the majority of the cast this is their main acting credit – and you would not believe it. The six multi-talented cast members act, dance and sing to perfection. Music plays a significant role here with the dialogue interspersed by cast sung versions of popular songs by Black artists (No Diggity by Blackstreet, At Your Best by Aaliyah, Beautiful by Snoop Dogg).

Each plays a character named for a shade of black; Onyx (Mark Akintimehin), Pitch (Emmanuel Akwafo), Jet (Nanabiko Ejimofor), Sable (Darragh Hand), Osibian (Aruna Jalloh) and Midnight (Kaine Lawrence), and they deliver these stories of modern Black culture to an ethnically diverse Royal Court audience. This is what diversity in theatre should look like; not token gestures and targets that are never met, instead providing a platform for minorities to tell their stories on their own terms.

The cast of For Black Boys… Photo: Ali Wright

Akwafo is particularly good, blending comedy with Pitch’s inherent tragedy; ‘just now I’m doing me’ he says, with no hint of irony, when challenged by his peers on whether he is still a virgin. Ejimofor’s emotive dance following Pitch’s vicissitude suggests hope on the horizon, despite their collective challenges and their fight against the world’s expectations. ‘Black boys ain’t supposed to need love’ says Onyx – well, these six boys do, and it seems obvious that Cameron is telling us that all Black boys do. Judging by the continual murmuring of agreement from the audience, they agree.

There are a few spots where the production could be tightened; there is a mild imbalance between the two halves of the play – the first, shorter and more comedic half, whizzing by while the second, longer and touching half, given more breathing room by the co-directors. But, given the achievements of the piece, it is a minor complaint in the grand scheme of things. In addition to ‘essential’, there is probably one other word that could equally be used to describe For Black Boys…; ‘unmissable’. Don’t miss it.For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When The Hue Gets Too Heavy is at the Royal Court Theatre until Sat 30 April