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For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When The Hue Gets Too Heavy at the Royal Court Theatre – review

There's light and shade to Ryan Calais Cameron's show on mental health

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
The cast of For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When The Hue Gets Too Heavy
© Ali Wright

Slowly but surely, society is waking up to the mental health and suicide crisis affecting young males. And as Ryan Calais Cameron's lively and meaningful new show makes clear, young black men are at particular risk due to the discrimination they face in a white-run society.

For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When The Hue Gets Too Heavy imagines six black men – Onyx, Pitch, Jet, Sable, Obsidian, and Midnight – describing their upbringing using fragmented monologues. Calais Cameron shows how each of the characters is groomed for a kind of toxic "hyper-masculinity" that leaves them in danger from others – but also a danger to themselves.

Ostensibly, the setup is a group therapy session – but the simple plastic chairs could equally imply a primary school classroom. Indeed, the show's early stages see each of the men consider how their experiences as black boys shaped their later attitudes to the world. For example, Sable recalls being racially profiled by the police, while Onyx carries with him the trauma of an abusive father.

The performance uses an arresting combination of poetry, dance, and song – inspired by Ntozake Shange's 1976 work For Coloured Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf. Tunes by the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Aaliyah, and Blackstreet pop up here and there. The rapid alternations between pathos and musical inserts give the first half a disparate feel. But things later settle into a steadier rhythm which gives the men time to reveal their nuances and vulnerabilities.

In some particularly touching passages, they offload their insecurities around sex. Pitch describes his nerves about talking to women, and Midnight raises his anxieties over performance in bed. Meanwhile Jet comes into conflict with a heteronormative vision of blackness. "Being black is hard enough," he says. "Being black and queer can seem a cruel and impossible proposition".

These impactful moments see the characters stepping forward to address the audience directly. Rather than confronting a congregation of people, they appear instead to be confronting their fears and learning self-acceptance. Characters (and sometimes actors too) seem to grow before our eyes.

For Black Boys has an urgency about it, despite having spent the best part of a decade in development before finally getting its premiere last year at the New Diorama Theatre. One of its triumphs is to demonstrate that there is no homogenous experience of blackness. This much is explored in a debate between the six men about whether the N-word can be reclaimed.

No less interesting is the discussion around colourism, and Sable's self-described "peng privilege" when it comes to attracting women as a result of his lighter-coloured skin. It's great to see such topics get a rare hearing on the London stage – especially when discussed by six black men.

Less "heavy" than its name suggests, Calais Cameron's show is rewardingly stuffed with comic asides and digressions. During a sequence about finding love, the lads sidle up, one by one, to recite their cheesiest chat-up lines. "How do you like raisins? Well, how do you feel about a date?" preens Obsidian in one of the night's most entertaining moments.