Ryan Calais Cameron’s new box office breaking play at London’s Royal Court addresses young Black men’s mental health.
London-based playwright Ryan Calais Cameron is the mind behind For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When The Hue Gets Too Heavy, a play currently being staged at The Royal Court Theater in London. At 17, Cameron began acting in the theater and later wrote his first play Timbuktu, which brought together the creative group that would later become the theater company Nouveau Riche, co-founded by Cameron and actress Shavani Cameron. Cameron spent his life accumulating content for For Black Boys…, which takes the adversity young Black men face daily to the stage. It centers around six young Black men who meet in group therapy and later form a brotherhood. Breaking box office records at the New Diorama Theater, For Black Boys… is the first show to transfer straight from an Off-West End theater to Downstairs at the Royal Court in London, a leading force in the world of theater that supports and helps to establish new writers.
Below, Cameron opens up about the importance of mental health awareness, creating an inclusive artistic community, and increasing the visibility of the young Black men’s struggles, all while using his company Nouveau Riche to further Black representation in the theater.
Lizzy Zarrello: What inspired the creation of your play For Black Boys?
Ryan Calais Cameron: I read For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow is Enough by Ntozake Shange a decade ago and was so inspired by it. It gave me insight into Black women and women of color. The play was written in the 70s, and I was surprised by how relevant it is now. I loved the idea of creating a work based on young Black men in the U.K. because I don’t feel like there’s been anything that spoke our truth, not on the stage anyway. So, before I was even writing or making theater, I started writing notes, almost like a little memoir to myself. I wasn’t a writer. I was just jotting down experiences that I’ve had. Within those ten years, I met more people. I got more life experience. I became a father. The pandemic also allowed me to see young Black men who needed something that spoke on their behalf. And I realized this is the time to put it out there.
LZ: Why do you feel like it’s so important to speak out on the mental health of young Black men?
RCC: Because who else is? There’s no safe space for Back men to speak about the depths of their minds or hearts. There are communal spaces like locker rooms or barbershops, but it’s taken up with bravado, sometimes toxic and hyper-masculine. But where can you go and bare your soul? I’m in my early thirties, and I’ve never been in a room, apart from this project, where I’ve heard Black men say things like, “I experience heartache.” It’s important to validate these young men and let them know they’re human. It’s also important to look at what happens if they’re not allowed to express the normal emotions that people have daily and how that can affect young Black men.
LZ: What do you hope the audience resonates most with when seeing For Black Boys…?
RCC: I want my audience to be a part of an experience. From the moment people come to the theater, they see images of young Black men around the entire space. I want Black men particularly to come in and feel more than welcome and realize this is your space. From the music and imagery to the moment you come in and see six Black boys that look like you on stage. I want you to be able to come as a Black boy and feel refreshed and like you’re in a better position to feel unapologetic, that you’re good enough as you are. I want to give insight to people who aren’t a Black boy, anybody that’s ever loved a Black boy, anybody that’s ever looked at a Black boy and prejudged them. This is for you to come and gain insight. Most importantly, for Black boys to know they’re loved because we don’t get that from society.
LZ: People are definitely resonating with it. It’s breaking box office records and going straight to the Royal Court. How have you handled the success of the play?
RCC: I’m just an artist. Like Nina Simone, my job is to tell the stories of my time. I’m always concentrating on, “Is it good enough? Are we representing the people we say we want to represent? And how do we do it where a community can look at this work and think, “you put our stories on stage, and we’re thankful.?'” I think that’s where my job begins and ends. All while ensuring my cast and team are being looked after and looking after themselves. After that, I concentrate on creating more work that makes people feel visible and tell stories that need to be told. For bigger reasons than theater, for cultural reasons, because this is my activism.
LZ: Was that a factor in creating your theater company Nouveau Riche?
RCC: One hundred percent. You see that within the young men in the play. None of them know each other, and by the end, they create a brotherhood. That same ethos is within Nouveau Riche. It started as a dream and became a day job. We were a group of kids who saw everybody talking about representation and diversity. We weren’t seeing things move, and if they were, it wasn’t fast enough. We wanted to create work that wasn’t represented in the mainstream. Over the last five years, we’ve met artists of color who’ve asked if we can put on their work. So that’s what we do. We created our own platform, our own industry, where we do things our way, and we can love each other rather than feeling judged or discriminated against. Now we’re a company, and from 2018 to today, it’s been nonstop.
LZ: How do you hope to further Black representation in the theater?
RCC: Keep giving people a platform. One thing Nouveau Riche is trying to do now is help develop grassroots artists; show people what it’s like to be a lighting designer, stage manager, or set designer. When I was growing up, these things weren’t visible. We’re trying to work with local groups and theaters to let people understand that this is available. We continue to call upon people, give a voice to those who deserve an opportunity, and create shows with a Black cast. At the Royal Court, we’ve achieved an entirely Black cast and creative team as well. So, we hope to further representation by looking out for artists and expanding our community.
Images courtesy of Ali Wright