BLACK, BOYISH, BEAUTIFUL
It’s not all musicals and movie-spinoffs that put bill-paying bums on seats. The best producers trust their nerve and instinct ,rake through the fringe and make niche productions into the new New. Nica Burns did this and should be thanked.
Ryan Calais Cameron’s play is for six black men – playfully named by precious shades: Jade , Onyx, Obsidian, etc, to explore with deft, playful, acrobatic and eloquent wit the feelings and confusions of a particular group . Black young men and boys , a minority here, spark both admiration in their musical influence and mistrust laced with downright fear; they are regarded as underachieving in education, easily sucked into drug and gang warfare. Many die by violence. That being part of this is tiring, frightening and disheartening for the boys themselves is not sufficiently noted by the rest of us. That it is an entertaining, serious, rather beautiful West End show on Shaftesbury Avenue which makes the point is something for theatre to be proud of. I have come to it late, foiled twice by train and tube strikes, but am grateful to have done so.
It was first at the pioneering New Diorama, picked up by the Royal Court, but to see it here is therefore a particular treat. The movement direction by the dancer Theophilus O Bailey is superb all through, right from the opening moment when a blue-lit tangle of limbs moves through shapes and moments, including a Biblical moment of all holding up one limp central body. It resolves into individual voices and faces when suddenly the stage becomes a primary-coloured room with plastic chairs – evoking primary school or therapy group – and we begin to hear the men’s memories and feelings.
Jet remembers hero-worshipping a blond white boy who got pursued in kiss-chase but the girls didn’t want him; Emmanuel Akwafo (particularly endearing as Pitch) voices the bewilderment of any Ghanaian or Nigerian lad who associates his personal blackness with family, churchgoing, a stern pastor and good behaviour while around him the Caribbean culture is cooler. So you have to speak its patois in order to be “black enough” . This fear of whitewashing, being a “coconut “or an Oreo, white inside , runs through a lot of their joshing, arguing conversations. As one scholarly spirit plaintively says “Just because a brother is grammatically correct doesn’t mean he wants to be white!”.
Themes of strong manhood are powerful, even more so than in boys born into a whiter modern-European identity who, especially if cosily middle-class , are happier to be a bit soft. Absent, brutal or neglectful fathers are talked of, and in one heartbreaking case a father who didn’t ask treatment for his prostate cancer because ‘I had to choose between my health and being a Man!”. Difficult family makes some turn lovingly to their peers, the bros, as more reliable. Again the intensely choreographed movement makes this embracingly clear, a sense of the safety of “mandem” as a warm huddle. In the most violent scene near the end – where a kid lashing out to be one of the BigMen at last realises the reality of a knifing – that sense of brotherly consolation is overwhelming, with the expressed agony of finding that the Bigman’s victim “mattered to somebody..”.
The second half begins with the perennial boy problem of girls, and the need to win them without being won or marked as a sissy. On the problem of chat up lines it’s very funny, and horribly recognisable to boys of all colours. But there is a wonderful reflection , and song, from Darragh Hand’s character about how he needed his “body count” to feel like a proper man but had found himself actually listening and talking to a girl and hardly knew how to handle such a situation. Again, words and moves alike are handled with nimble grace, never a word or gesture amiss. Later, one mournfully explains how hard it is to be gay and black : it’s “a while man’s perversion”, putting you once again outside, lost, in the dark.
I had expected more emphasis on racism. There is a wonderfully mocking “stop and search” dance routine, and one weary observation about how walking down the street as a big black boy you see people locking their car doors and hiding their phones from you. But the wisdom and power of the piece is not in resentment but in understanding. In love. And in the power of the cast: each different, each remarkable, each one man playing many parts: Mark Akintimehin, Emmanuel Akwafo, Nnabiko Ejimofor, Darragh Hand, Aruna Jalloh ,Kaine Lawrence. It’s beautiful.
nimax.com. to 7 May