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Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Theatre review: Black Boys explores the Black, gay, male experience

Multi-disciplinary work is at its best when we are witness to the Black experience in real, concrete terms

When The Cultch’s executive director, Heather Redfern, announced Black Boys was in Vancouver as part of a national tour, I immediately wanted to know where.

Would the tour of a show about the gay Black male experience be playing outside our country’s larger cities, where likely the only Black boys men residents will have seen are on television. Turns out the other tour stops are in Calgary, and Montreal.

Having been given life at Toronto’s queer theatre, Buddies in Badtimes, it had already played our nation’s largest city.  And while fully acknowledging theatrical tours in Canada can be cost prohibitive, and unless you are a touring Broadway show, they typically require a large population from which to draw its audience.

But after watching the intermittently powerful Black Boys, I couldn’t help but wonder how it would play in those smaller cities and towns.

Not that I profess any thorough understanding of the Black experience as a white male of privilege (although I can relate to some of the gay male part), but I can’t help but wonder how much more powerful Black Boys might be in places like Prince George, or even a larger centre like Winnipeg (outed as Canada’s most racist city in 2015 by Macleans).

Let’s hope there will be future opportunities for Black Boys to reach audiences beyond the predisposed liberal theatre-goer. After all, that is where the real change can come.

Like the superior Hot Brown Honey, currently playing at the York Theatre and exploring similar themes, Black Boys is a multi-disciplinary work. Using spoken word, dance and meta-theatrical conversations, the three actors reflect on what it is to be queer, Black, and male.

But while the spoken word and dance segments of Black Boys are at times interesting to hear and watch, they have little lasting resonance. Where Black Boys finds its most compelling moments is when the trio break away from the art.

These meta-theatrical scenes take us behind the curtain to some interesting discussions originating from the development of the play itself. It is here we find out about the three performers –  Stephen Jackman-Torkoff, Thomas Olajide, and Tawiah Ben-Eben M’Carthy – on a more personal level.

These often-heated discussions speak to a wide range of issues including Black Lives Matter, skin colour and slavery. The external gives way to internal arguments, and even while some of what they discuss may not be revolutionary, there is something powerful in witnessing these three men talk of their experiences in real, concrete terms.

There are also moments of joy, hilarity, and pushing limits in this intermission-less 95-minute show (stretched to 110 on opening night). Olajide’s sexual awakening with images of Mario Lopez is both funny and relatable; M’Carthy attempting reconciliation of religion and sexuality is heartfelt; and, Jackman-Torkoff shocks by getting naked very early-on.

For a touring show, Black Boys also looks really good. Rachel Forbes’ set, Stephen Surlin’s sound & video, and Jareth Li’s lighting designs are impressive and evocative.

There is no denying Black Boys is important, but I wanted it spend less time on its sometimes-impenetrable artistic side, to delve deeper into these men’s lives, and hopefully better understand their experience.

Black Boys created by Stephen Jackman-Torkoff, Tawiah Ben M’Carthy, Thomas Olajide with Virgilia Griffith and Jonathan Seinen. Directed by Jonathan Seinen. A Saga Collectif/Buddies in Bad Times production presented by The Cultch with Zee Zee Theatre. On stage at the Historic Theatre at The Cultch (1895 Venables St, Vancouver) until January 20. Visit for tickets and information.

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