On London Stages, Uplifting Tales of Black Masculinity

On London Stages, Uplifting Tales of Black Masculinity

If you believe the Op-Eds, men are in a bad way these days: perpetually beleaguered and isolated, if not irredeemably toxic. But two lively new plays in London suggest an alternative, sanguine vision of 21st-century masculinity, foregrounding generous portrayals of male bonding and togetherness.

In “For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When The Hue Gets Too Heavy,” six Black British men participate in a group-therapy session punctuated by bursts of song. The show, written and directed by Ryan Calais Cameron, is a male-centric spin on Ntozake Shange’s 1976 work, “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf,” in which women of color recount their experiences of racism and gendered violence through performance poetry, music and dance.

“For Black Boys” runs at the Garrick Theater in the West End through June 1. On a stage decked out in bright, blocky primary colors like a pop music video, the men — called Onyx, Pitch, Jet, Sable, Obsidian and Midnight, each a shade of black — bare their souls one by one. Every so often they morph into a ’90-style boy band, delivering neatly choreographed, crowd-pleasing renditions of R&B classics like Backstreet’s “No Diggity” and India.Arie’s “Brown Skin.” (The set design is by Anna Reid, the choreography by Theophilus O. Bailey.)

Banter is their love language. Jet (an engagingly plaintive Fela Lufadeju) is joshed for wearing chinos — a “white” affectation — prompting a spiky discussion on the vexed subject of “acting Black.” Gradually, deflection and bravado give way to introspection and insight as the men unpack the perniciousness of machismo in their lives: Jet recalls how his father refused to seek cancer treatment for fear of appearing unmanly; Sable, a self-styled Casanova (Albert Magashi, suitably strutting) concedes that insecurity might be driving his philandering ways; a flashback scene depicts Obsidian (Mohammed Mansaray) reluctantly engaging in senseless violence for street cred, with life-changing consequences.

The play ends with an upbeat mantra about keeping your chin up in the face of adversity. Its core message is about collective solidarity: By embracing emotional vulnerability and opening up to one another, young men can build support systems that will help them overcome life’s hardships. And the audience’s enthusiasm at the curtain call suggested to a sense of recognition: These sentiments rang true, and it meant something to see them conveyed from a West End stage.

But that easy accessibility comes at a price. The six characters feel like stock types, their respective travails a little too generic to be truly compelling — each existing, rather like pictures in a high-school textbook, to illustrate a trope. This is echoed in dialogue that relies heavily on melodramatic cliché (one character tells us his father was “destructive like a wrecking ball and I was the collateral damage”) and lingo taken from social sciences (“We’re not monoliths!”). Despite its exuberant energy, “For Black Boys” is ultimately somewhat two-dimensional.

Just around the corner at @sohoplace, through May 4, “Red Pitch,” written by Tyrell Williams and directed by Daniel Bailey, tells a touching story of three 16-year-old aspiring soccer players from a London housing project. As they train for an upcoming, once-in-a-lifetime tryout with a professional club, the trio engage in the daft patter peculiar to adolescence: a fizzing, complex mix of insecurity, aggression and fraternal tenderness.

Bilal (Kedar Williams-Stirling) is ambitious and driven. Omz (Francis Lovehall) is hotheaded, prone to self-sabotage; he is often unlikable, but his flaws are all too human. The goalkeeper Joey (Emeka Sesay) has the funniest stage presence of the three, whether delivering wry quips, demonstratively folding and unfolding his arms, or slipping into his father’s Nigerian accent when he’s getting worked up. The boys’ teenage mannerisms — the moody sulks and flounces, the primal urgency with which they scoff snacks — are affectionately played for laughs.

A municipal soccer pitch takes up the whole stage in Amelia Jane Hankin’s pleasing set. In contrast to another recent London soccer play, “Dear England,” where the sports choreography was less than convincing, the cast here is at ease performing sprints and passing drills. A series of dream sequences in which the boys imagine future sporting glory are strikingly rendered by spotlights, audiovisual effects conjuring camera flashes and the roar of a crowd, and the actors’ slow-motion movements. (The lighting is by Ali Hunter, the sound by Khalil Madovi.)

The poignancy of “Red Pitch” derives from the near-impossibility of a happy ending: In an ultracompetitive field, the three friends won’t all be signed by the club, and seem destined to go their separate ways. We are catching them at a specific, fleeting moment in time, on the threshold of the next phase of life. The line between sentimentality and schmaltz can be fine, but Williams’s taut script treads it nimbly. (The play’s running time is exactly 90 minutes, the length of a regulation soccer match — a nice touch.)

“For Black Boys” and “Red Pitch” are both earnest, uplifting evocations of male camaraderie by emerging British playwrights; both also achieved notable word-of-mouth success during runs in small theaters before transferring to the West End. But they showcase markedly different storytelling styles: “For Black Boys,” with its didactic enumeration of societal ills, has the feel of a PowerPoint presentation; its bracing directness befits the urgency of its message, but as a piece of art it never quite transports us. By contrast, “Red Pitch” draws us in with an absorbing — if conventional linear — narrative, and wears its wisdom lightly. The first is mere performance, the latter true theater.

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