I AM RACIST by Hannah Harris
For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Hue Gets Too Heavy
I went to see this play last night and have not been able to stop thinking about it. I acknowledge I am queen of hyperbole, but I am not overstating it when I say this is possibly the most inspirational and important piece of theatre I have ever seen.
A choreopoem written by Ryan Calais Cameron, it is about black masculinity, and the grave mental health issues that are associated with it. It took several years to write because Cameron was researching it, talking to as many people as he could to capture myriad lived experiences. The piece pays homage to a work about black women written in 1975 by Ntozake Shange, “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf.”
Under the auspices of being in group therapy together, a cast of six black male actors cover every possible stereotype through a mix of spoken word, song and movement. And when I say song and movement, I mean rap, hip hop, salsa, krumping. They flip, interrogate, challenge, distort, crush every one of those stereotypes until you as an audience member have had any preconceived idea turned on its head and shoved out the window. It is mind-blowing, ingenious and so bloody refreshing.
There are shouts, whoops, belly laughs and sobbing by turns from the brilliantly diverse audience throughout the performance. As the lights went up, I had tears in my eyes, and audience members – some strangers to each other - were smiling at and hugging each other. You cannot fail to be touched by this show.
The six actors, as an ensemble, won The Stage Debut Award in 2022, following its run at the Royal Court earlier that year – the theatre’s first show since its two-year enforced closure for the pandemic. It was then nominated for Best New Play at the 2023 Oliviers, only pipped by the universally acclaimed Prima Facie starring Jodie Comer; and it has now transferred to the Apollo Theatre on Shaftesbury Avenue – with the original cast - for a limited run of six weeks, but I cannot believe the life of the show will end here.
Fresh out of drama school, and some never having acted before, the actors were approached by the original director, Tristan Fynn-Aiduenu, via Instagram. The script drew them in and moved them all immediately because they could identify with it, it was about each and every one of them, and you can feel that excited energy fizzing on the stage throughout the show, even now, around 18 months since they first performed it together.
At a time when racism is so rife in society, we need art like this to hold the mirror up, as theatre does like no other medium, to show us where things have gone so terribly wrong, and educate us on how we can do much much better.
As I watched, I could not help but think about the tragedy this week of Ralph Yarl, a black 16-year-old in Missouri who knocked on the wrong door when he went to collect his younger twin brothers after school, and was shot in the head twice by an 84-year-old white man who “believed he was in danger.” Ralph Yarl is an academically and musically gifted boy, section leader in a marching band, and plays multiple instruments in the metropolitan youth orchestra. He is also a member of his school’s Science Olympiad Team and dreams of studying chemical engineering at college. Whatever his achievements, he posed no threat whatsoever to the old man, but sadly was not given the opportunity to prove this.
The play addresses how unbelievably tough it is to grow up as a black young man in the UK. From the realisation at primary school that you are seen as ugly compared to the white boys, to the injustice of stop and search, to the incomprehensible reality of being seen as scary by most people you meet on the street. The moment you see that liking comic books and Iron Maiden means you’re not black enough. The agonising pressure to be manly and suppress your emotions no matter what. The compounded complexity and pain of having to live as both black and queer.
The list goes on and on. And it is multidimensional and multi-layered. By no means simply about the oppression of blacks by whites, but about all the infinite nuances and complexities around prejudice between and within different races and cultures.
I see myself as a liberal woman, who endeavours to check her white privilege and exist without prejudice, but this play made me see that I am deluding myself. If you grow up in a racist society, it is impossible to suppress your unconscious prejudices – and the play makes this painfully clear. My internal voice does not like this. “But Hannah, you’ve had boyfriends who are black, your best friends are black, you were pregnant with a baby who would have been black,” it says. “Pipe down,” I say back, “you are racist.” I am racist. We all are.
I just hope that if you learn how to acknowledge it, be constantly aware of it, and call yourself out on it whenever you feel it rise up, you are going some way towards the nirvana of a society in which we are all truly equal. But I guess that’s easy for me to say, as a privileged white middle-class woman.
All I know is that I would love for the whole world to see this play – please try to make it happen if you possibly can. I think and hope it will be around for a while.
“You ever looked deep into a scared Black boy’s eyes?
They’ll show you what hell looks like
living with death by his side
self-medicating with false ego and pride
Tussling with his mirror image, He’s found no value in it
So often suicide becomes blurred with homicide.
Look him in the eye just one time, I dare you.”
Current run until May 7th 2023 at the Apollo Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue in London. Advanced tickets are sold out but daily Rush tickets are available at 10am Tuesday to Sunday via the TodayTix app.
Writer/director: Ryan Calais Cameron
Original director: Tristan Fynn-Aiduenu
Onyx Mark Akintimehin
Pitch Emmanuel Akwafo
Jet Nnabiko Ejimofor (played by understudy Shaquille Jack last night)
Sable Darragh Hand
Obsidian Aruna Jalloh
Midnight Kaine Lawrence