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.

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