'For Black Boys' review — a cathartic exploration of Blackness in 21st-century Britain
Read our four-star review of Ryan Calais Cameron's Olivier-nominated play, For Black Boys, currently running at the Apollo Theatre through 7 May.
For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When The Hue Gets Too Heavy may bear a dark title, but this isn’t a depressing play. It’s an uplifting reflection of 21st-century life that celebrates modern British, Black men.
After a world premiere at New Diorama Theatre in 2021 and a unanimously praised Royal Court transfer, For Black Boys screams its messages of acceptance, love, and endurance in the West End, with a six-week run at the Apollo Theatre and two Olivier nominations under its belt.
Inspired by Ntozake Shange’s seminal work for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf, playwright Ryan Calais Cameron’s For Black Boys centres around six Black British men (played by Mark Akintimehin, Emmanuel Akwafo, Nnabiko Ejimofor, Darragh Hand, Aruna Jalloh, and Kaine Lawrence) who meet in a support group.
As they unpack deep-rooted issues — racism at school, microaggressions in the workplace, gang culture, run-ins with the police — they discover what it means to be Black in 21st-century Britain. With its slick mix of poetry, storytelling, hip-hop, and R&B music (the Ghost Town DJs get a special callout), Cameron’s play thrusts “blackness” under a microscope.
Given the palpably thick energy throughout the theatre and the vocal responses of "mm-hmms", clicking fingers, and spontaneous applauses and calls of appreciation, the audience clearly resonated with the play. This production is like group therapy for the characters on stage, as well as the audience.
The cast incorporates choreographer Theophilus O. Bailey’s impressive physical moments, strengthening the central themes. After the curtain comes up, in an almost dream-like ethereal movement montage, we immediately see the men move in unison with their writhing bodies intertwined. A lone man takes the stage, before being joined by his peers to become one being; a visual display of the connection they share.
We then transition from darkness to light as the sombre moodiness of the stage turns into a bright, blinding light revealing Anna Reid's minimalist-yet-vibrant pink, blue, and green pop-colour set. This juxtaposition between dark and light runs through the play; after every sobering story comes a moment of comic relief, echoing the ability of the Black men to endure tough moments and find light in the dark.
Despite the tough subject matter, For Black Boys is also surprisingly joyful. In many ways the play is a celebration — it reflects a sense of joy and relief of getting to the brink of giving up, staring death itself right in the eyes, and pulling back and healing.
Due to Cameron’s fast-paced writing — a series of non-linear character monologues bounce between characters — the play’s themes initially feel surface-level in the opening stories. Pacy storytelling and short scenes with actors interjecting over each other prematurely reach the punchline before we can think; the audience is left with little time to truly marinate in points made about topics like internalised shame and mental health.
While there was no single unified plot tying the various individual storylines together, the collective storytelling, told by an Olivier-nominated cast, became a vehicle to explore the overarching premise of Black masculinity.
So, by the moment we reached the heartbreakingly beautiful curtain call, the cast looked exhausted and emotionally spent as they huddled together in a group hug, with a rapturous standing ovation. This is a powerful production, and one that will stay with many for a long time.
For Black Boys is at the Apollo Theatre through 7 May. Book For Black Boys tickets on London Theatre today.
Photo credit: For Black Boys (Photo courtesy of production)
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