British dramatist Ryan Calais Cameron’s play feels immensely timely in its exploration of Black masculinity, although it was conceived after the killing of Trayvon Martin in 2013. In it, six men with names that evoke blackness (Onyx, Pitch, Jet, etc) speak about how it feels to be young Black men today. Directed by Tristan Fynn-Aiduenu, it excavates their struggles and desires, combining monologues with repartee. Some of it is playful but it circles back to feelings of powerlessness, humiliation and suicidal depression, and is set against a hostile white gaze. Audience members are given self-care information on the way into the auditorium.
Inspired by Ntozake Shange’s 1976’s work, For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf, its script contains heartfelt revelations and urgent discussions on race and masculinity, so it is a great shame that it does not come together with any power as a production.
The six characters convene in a group-therapy circle, occasionally breaking into song and dance that is enthusiastic but feels rough around the edges. The play begins in childhood, with the actors sucking thumbs and gurning exaggeratedly as they re-enact memories of their six-year-old selves playing kiss-chase.
Several of the performers are recent drama school graduates (including Kaine Lawrence, Nnabiko Ejimofor and Darragh Hand) and while they all bring energy and earnestness to the stage, they sometimes fall into cartoonish over-acting, declaring their lines too loudly or bluntly with some wobbles and varying skill in the dance routines.
The material itself is wide-ranging and hard-hitting, switching from personal experience of violence, abuse or sexual insecurities to intellectual debate about the possibility of reclaiming the N-word and the empowering African history that predates slavery. Occasionally, an invisible voice throws out questions: “What are your experiences of fatherhood?” and “Have you ever thought about ending your life?” This feels like a clunky structuring devise, resulting in inorganic movement from one subject to the next.
Anna Reid’s two-tiered set is a brightly coloured arrangement with plastic chairs and a trampoline in the second half. The primary colours are glaring and the set resembles something from a CBeebies show, clashing in spirit with the sober, searching nature of the script. The men, too, are dressed in bright colours in the second half and look like a boyband or a motley troupe of children’s TV presenters.
Calais Cameron, whose poetic play Typical was released as a film by Soho theatre earlier this year, clearly has talent and explores his subject matter unflinchingly here. His script is peppered with humour and profundity. But this production feels disparate and underdeveloped as a whole.
At New Diorama theatre, London, until 6 November.
In the UK and Ireland, Samaritans can be contacted on 116 123 or email email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. Other international helplines can be found at www.befrienders.org.