BY NIKKI ADEBIYI, FOUNDER @ BOUNCE BLACK
On Saturday 8th April, in collaboration with the Royal Court Theatre, I organised for a group of 45 people to see the heavily hyped debut play by Ryan Calais Cameron: For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When The Hue Gets Too Heavy.
In its third run, and for the first time at the West End’s Apollo Theatre, the show depicts the group therapy session of six young Black men, which took me on an emotional rollercoaster. One that made the hours of phone calls, mass texts, emails, coordinating bookings and seating, arriving early to print tickets at the Box Office, then checking everyone in using colour-coded spreadsheets (breathe) all worth it.
Me being me, I took notes throughout the show because I knew I would need to process it all later in writing. My thoughts are by no means exhaustive as I’ve only seen the play once, in contrast to those among the audience who had seen it as many as five times, who perhaps might have more richer and developed thoughts than me. Nevertheless, here I am—processing the wonder that is For Black Boys…
Background to For Black Boys…
The play itself is inspired by the 1975 choreopoem For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow Is Enuf by the late playwright Ntozake Shange. A choreopoem is a theatrical art form which incorporates dance, poetry and music. So, you can expect to see all of these in For Black Boys as well.
Shange’s original play is powerfully poetic and deeply moving. It magnifies the stories of seven Black women whose lives are significantly impacted by gut-wrenching pain, trauma, heartache and loss. They are not known by name, only by the colours they are wearing (e.g. “Lady in Red”), a style which is imitated in Cameron’s spin-off.
Shange’s writing is both stunning and stirring, wounding and healing. When she passed away in 2018, her sister Ifa Bayeza remarked: “It’s a huge loss for the world. I don’t think there’s a day on the planet when there’s not a young woman who discovers herself through the words of my sister.” Words like:
somebody/ anybodyNtozake Shange
sing a black girl’s song
bring her out
to know herself
to know you
but sing her rhythms
carin/ struggle/ hard times
sing her song of life
she’s been dead so long
closed in silence so long
she doesn’t know the sound
of her own voice
her infinite beauty
she’s half-notes scattered
without rhythm/ no tune
sing her sighs
sing the song of her possibilities
sing a righteous gospel
let her be born
let her be born
& handled warmly.
Bayeza’s words ring true for me as I encountered the play in my late teens, finding in it songs of solace and solidarity amidst depression. I appreciated the richness of Shange’s poetic writing, so when I heard of Ryan Calais Cameron’s Black British male version, I knew I had to see it. Although, I’ll admit I was hesitant because I had been scarred by Tyler Perry’s film rendition of For Colored Girls (Aside: I’m looking at you, Mr. Ealy). Thankfully, For Black Boys was not nearly as triggering.
Spoiler alert: topics and themes in the play
In the span of about two hours, For Black Boys… covers everything from Black boyhood, body image and self esteem issues, stereotypes, relationships and colourism, to Black family and fatherhood, domestic violence, youth violence, sex, sexuality and sexual assault.
It’s a lot. Both topically and emotionally.
Yet I think this speaks volumes about the complexity of the Black British male experience. The play affords Black British men a nuance that they are typically not given anywhere else.
In the play, we see them emerge as boys, youthful and tender, who become calloused over time by hardship and other obstacles to their flourishing. At home, out in the world, and even within the Black community. In short, we are given a glimpse of Black male vulnerability and all the ways they try to cope with it.
What does it mean to be a man? What does it mean to be a Black man? And what does it mean to be a Black British man? These are the recurring questions the young men wrestle with and try to answer for themselves to varying degrees of success and resolution. Just like life off the stage for many Black British men.
Personal reflections and impressions
Those two hours were as much a therapeutic process for me as they were, I imagine, for the Black men in the audience. In fact, I hesitate to call it a performance because I’m sure that the actors themselves felt they were depicting realities not too far from their own.
I thought about all the Black men in my life and those whom I have encountered over the course of my life. And I realised that perhaps for the first time, I was seeing the thorough “working out” of the lives of many Black men. I was seeing how, like everyone else, their early years experiences shaped, for better or worse, how they showed up in the world. I saw how they defined and displayed their manhood and masculinity either in affirmation or repudiation of the versions they were presented in childhood. I saw how their emotional development was stifled as a result of not being taught the language and strategies for healthy self regulation, and how others become collateral damage as a result. I saw how they were robbed of the love they deeply need and desire because of social standards which allow them only the expression of anger but not affection. I saw, in other words, what an old friend meant when he said “I’m made of the same stuff as you.”
Black men are made of the same thinking and feeling stuff as everybody else, and For Black Boys… was a good reminder of the importance of remembering them in this light. Trauma and pain never excuses, but it does explain. So, I left that theatre with a greater sense of compassion for the stories and struggles of Black men, and a quiet resolve to learn how to be my brother’s keeper without being my brother’s mother.
I don’t want to be the kind of woman who tears down. I don’t want to be the kind of woman who tears a man down. I don’t want to be the kind of woman who tears a Black man down.
Life and death are in the power of the tongue, so why be a trigger in the face of someone who already walks with a target on their back?
I believe in justice. And I believe in mercy. I’m still trying to figure out how they work together. But I love my brothers, and I need them to know it. So, I’m striving for softer.
In a world where Black bodies are disparaged, and the Black man’s entire existence in the world can be summed up by his last words – “I can’t breathe” – forget about a rib, I’m just trying to be somebody’s diaphragm.A personal journal entry after watching Queen and Slim, 2020
A moment for the culture
What I enjoyed most about the play was how its heaviness was interspersed with light-heartedness, which kept the audience from overwhelm. For every five minutes of heartache, there was another five minutes of hearty laughter.
From the krumping and the RnB throwbacks, to the African praise and worship ballads, the play is essentially an ode to the melting pot that is Black British culture. Appropriately soundtracked by the classic ‘Black Boys‘ anthem by Ashley Thomas, formerly known as Bashy, the play is embedded with several iconic (read: chef’s kiss) cultural references throughout. Undoubtedly, the undertones of the play, with its insider references, scream “if you know, you know”.
And yet. For Black Boys… isn’t just for Black boys.
It’s also for the women who love, live with and raise Black boys.
It’s for the fathers, present or absent, whose example sets the tone for Black boys.
It’s for the police officers who raise suspicion about Black boys.
It’s for the strangers who cross the street at the mere sight of Black boys.
It’s for the mothers who, heartbreakingly, prematurely bury Black boys.
Irrespective of who you are and where you come from, you should see this play, if only to ponder your personal experiences with, and attitude towards, Black boys.
Ultimately, though, this play is for Black boys.
So, to those who already have considered, or may be on the verge of considering, suicide because your hue gets too heavy, please go and see this play. It will remind you of your worth, your beauty and your humanity.
More importantly, as the closing line of the play says, it will remind you that “if you can stand to wait, the moment will pass”.
For Black Boys… by Ryan Calais Cameron is on at the Apollo Theatre in London until Saturday 7 May, 2023. Watch the trailer below and get your tickets now!