(Methuen, 2021; Royal Court Theatre, 2022)
Reviewed by Jonny Wright
Ryan Calais Cameron’s play started off at the New Diorama Theatre in London and earned itself a transfer to the Royal Court. As well as writing, Cameron also directs the play and does it with aplomb, getting very natural, nuanced performances out of all six actors. It was refreshing to feel like I knew all of these characters in real life, or versions of them, and it felt like lots of the audience also really enjoyed seeing themselves, or their lives, reflected on stage. I saw a matinee performance and it was amazing to think that the actors would have to do such an emotional, energetic, ensemble performance all over again just a few hours later. Including an interval, the show runs to 2 and a half hours and the interval was the actors’ only break. Despite the play being a series of monologues, the actors never left the stage and were involved in each other’s monologues as other characters, often having to sing, dance or switch accents at the drop of a hat. Kudos to all the actors that they were able to do this to such a high standard.
The bleak title – an echo of Ntozake Shange’s innovative 1976 choreopoem, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf – and the haunting opening movement piece in the play are somewhat misleading. While the play does build up to the dark issues which lead to each of the six characters attempting suicide, the dark moments are earned with a lightness and levity which run throughout the play. There’s lots of comedy to be had in the boys’ cheesy chat up lines to get girls, or when they all turn on one character who thinks the police are doing a good job, or in funny lines such as when a ladies’ man is telling the audience the secret to his success and says, ‘I been light-skinned my whole life.’ Black Boy Joy shone throughout, making the play ultimately an enjoyable watch, and making heavier moments hit harder. The play, and the laughter within it, made me think of a line by the rapper Dave in his song ‘Black’ – ‘loud in our laughter, silent in our suffering.’ Is Black Boy Joy a defensive mechanism for papering over the cracks when the hue gets too heavy? I guess a joke is never funny when you have to explain it.
This is a play, of our time and for this generation, that is very sensitive to issues of mental health; the theatre allows you to stay in the auditorium for 15 minutes afterwards if you need to decompress. A play about therapy culture, but about people you would only find in therapy as a last resort. It covers a wide variety of issues, such as absent fathers, abusive fathers, class, police brutality, knife crime, rejection of Black women, homosexuality, prostate cancer, sexual prowess and use of the n-word, combined with a tender exploration of Black masculinity and what it means to be a Black British man. With six very different characters to ‘share’ these issues around, we were never left with that dreaded feeling that any one character was speaking on behalf of, or as a reflection of, the whole community. Cameron captures the voices of all the characters excellently and puts a very poetic flavour to the writing which works well in the play.
It was also refreshing to see that the Royal Court has embraced the play in its building. The audience, when I went, was majority Black; there were cocktails at the bar named after the characters in the play, and jollof rice, jerk chicken and patties were served by the Black caterers Kwaku’s afterwards. The whole experience, including that of the audience as a collective, was uplifting and left me feeling that the hue had gotten a little less heavy.