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‘Black men can be nerdy too’

Meet Britain’s most exciting playwright today. Wrapping up Black History month with style, pizazz and love.

By Novel AllenPublished 2 months ago 7 min read
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Playwright and director Ryan Calais Cameron - (Andrew Crowley pic)

To speak of love is to encompass the abundance of an ever flowing mix and dynamics in the mutable moving parts of life. It is unpredictable, inconstant, uncertain, fluid, erratic, irregular, inconsistent, maddening and wonderful.

Love is history, culture, people, situations, relationships, pain, happiness, achievements, longings, hopes, dreams and an ever-reaching inner depth of searching for perfection of body, mind and soul.

I love to speak of the color of my skin, I love to speak of the kindness of people who are not of the color of my skin. I love to speak of the many people whom I have met along the rocky road of my life's journey. I love to enjoy reading or listening to the success of others which makes me proud to breathe the same space and exist within a malleable universe. From these experiences I have grown into a more enlightened state of becoming a versatile individual.

Love is finding pleasure in oneself, but even more so is finding it in the achievements of others, those who master the art of genius with humility, grace and kindness.

Ryan C. Cameron is one of those persons.

On the upstairs stage at the Royal Court, Ryan Calais Cameron sits, he is relaxed and smiling, an unassuming figure for someone who’s arguably the most exciting playwright of recent times. A year ago he celebrated a must-see hit at north London’s Kiln Theatre with Retrograde, a story about the moment Sidney Poitier found himself trapped between the civil rights movement and the forces of McCarthyism. A tense, propulsive thriller set against a paranoid 1950s Hollywood. This came soon after his smash hit For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When The Hue Gets Too Heavy, a clever and lyrical exploration of black male vulnerability.

What makes Calais Cameron special is that the works are markedly different from the norm or stereotypical. One is a meticulously researched historical drama, the other a state-of-the-nation epic. Here is a versatile talent who cannot be categorized or compartmentalized.

For Black Boys… is heading back to the West End for the second time in two years and Calais Cameron has just finished a morning’s rehearsal drilling a new cast. “I always tell my actors there is a very fine line between a mess and a masterpiece,” he grins.

Originating at the tiny 80-seater New Diorama in 2021 and transferring to the Royal Court in 2022 before reaching the West End in 2023, it has been a sure hit. All three runs sold out. Next month it will be at the Garrick for nine weeks. The play has a simple premise – six black men on stage, bantering about their experience of love, violence, gangs, fathers, sex, and societal expectations.

"Calais Cameron knew it was a success when, while watching it at the Royal Court with an audience of mostly young black men, he waited for one of them to get out their phone, and none of them did. “If one had, then that would have been a fail,” he says. “But instead they were leaning forward, practically pointing at the stage. It’s the opposite of the experiences I had in the theatre when I was a kid.”

The play has its roots in the “disenfranchised working-class community” in Lewisham where Calais Cameron, now 35, grew up and where he witnessed the twin forces of austerity and gentrification simultaneously slowly destroy the youth clubs, sports facilities and social cohesion of his childhood. He was one of the lucky ones: he was the oldest of five siblings, which meant his mother remained at home".

“So there was someone who was accountable for me every single day. The fear of me disappointing her was bigger than anything else that was happening on the streets. A lot of my mates didn’t have that.”

He always wanted to be an actor but was advised at school to get a trade instead. But after gaining a diploma in engineering, he got himself a place at Arts University Bournemouth where he trained as an actor. On graduating, he entered a monologue competition run by the actor Jimmy Akingbola where he was spotted by Clint Dyer, now deputy artistic director at the National Theatre, who cast him in The Westbridge at the Royal Court’s pop-up space in Peckham in 2011. Four years of acting on stage and screen followed, during which period he was also writing, initially just reflections and observations which eventually became For Black Boys…

At the play’s heart is a crisis of identity that, whatever the specificity of their individual experiences, Calais Cameron argues is universal to nearly all black British men of his generation.

“You can’t smile too hard, you have to be tough, you’ve got to survive, you can’t show weakness, you can’t talk about how you feel,” he argues. “As a kid, every time you turn on the TV you see black men being tough and rough, so you assume that’s what you need to be too. But the struggle is that actually many of them are not like that. They are quite nerdy, or they quite like comic books, but they are not allowed to be these things. As one of my characters says, ‘I thought I needed to black up.’”

For Black Boys… arrives in the West End at a point in which precisely these questions of race, identity and cultural representation are back in the spotlight. After all, it opens a few weeks before the Oscars, where the scathing publishing industry satire American Fiction is up for five awards. That film mercilessly lampoons a white-dominated literary culture that limits black stories to “authentic” tales about poverty and violence in the self-congratulatory delusion that commissioning such stories signals its commitment to diversity.

Ryan Calais Cameron: 'I always tell my actors there is a very fine line between a mess and a masterpiece' - Johan Persson

“It’s all about what sells,” says Calais Cameron. “And as a black artist, you think, I have a million other stories to tell, but I also need to eat. So I understand why some black artists feel compelled to give those stories.” He doesn’t feel that pressure, however. “I knew my audience at New Diorama would be 90 per cent black. But now in the West End there will be people in the audience who are not black. So how comfortable am I putting the play in spaces that are not just black?”

He’s at pains to stress he doesn’t mean For Black Boys... won’t resonate with white audiences. “To be honest I think all men are struggling. That’s a great moment when we realize culturally we are not as different as we fear.”

He thinks the culture itself is changing too. “My children are growing up in a global community. Their influences are not just from their back yard but all over the world, and they are so much more open about their lives". He points to recent TV shows such as Champion and BBC3’s Dreaming Whilst Black as evidence the net is widening. He also defends Top Boy – the acclaimed Channel 4 drama series about gang violence on a London estate, which is now available on Netflix. “There should be a world in which Top Boy is allowed to exist. It’s not a Top Boy problem, it’s an industry problem. We’ve had 10 million shows about the Kray Twins but no one says all white people are gangsters".

Cameron is working on commission with Film Four, the American film company AMC; co-writing the forthcoming TV adaptation of Candice Carty-Williams’s hit novel Queenie, writing for Nouveau Riche, the company he set up with Seth in 2015. Another great prospect is Retrograde, which is rumored to be heading for the West End. “I read something about Sidney Poitier and this situation he found himself in [in which Poitier was asked to denounce the black actor Paul Robeson, because of his support of communist countries] and realized I knew nothing about it. So I immersed myself in 1950s Hollywood".

What is next remains to be seen, though it’s irresistible to think that Cameron will enhance his reputation for artistic surprises.

“When you have a hit such as Black Boys, people automatically put you in a box. But in truth I just write the story that excites me that day".

Let’s hope those stories keep coming. After all, a voice like Calais Cameron’s only comes along once in a generation.

Love can be found in raising up someone else other than yourself.

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For Black Boys... runs at the Garrick Theatre through March. Tickets: garricktheatre.co.uk

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Excerpts from article by The Telegraph

Excerpts from Story by Claire Allfree •

LifestyleWisdomMen's PerspectivesMasculinityManhoodIssuesInspirationHealthFatherhoodEmpowermentCultureBrotherhood
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About the Creator

Novel Allen

Every new day is a blank slate. Write something new.

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Comments (7)

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  • Test2 months ago

    The article beautifully captures the essence of love, not only in personal relationships but also in the appreciation and support of others' achievements. It's inspiring to see how Ryan Calais Cameron's work resonates with audiences and addresses important societal issues, such as identity and representation.

  • “To be honest I think all men are struggling. That’s a great moment when we realize culturally we are not as different as we fear.” This is the ultimate truth! If everyone realises this, the world would be a better place. So glad you wrote about this!

  • Bonnie Bowerman2 months ago

    A lovely read! Thank you!

  • Thank you for sharing this with us, Novel. Over on this side of the pond I had not heard of him but I look forward to hearing much more in the future.

  • Shirley Belk2 months ago

    Great interview!

  • Rachel Robbins2 months ago

    This is beautiful. From the first paragraph, you had me hooked. And yes, the world needs as many stories as we can find. Thank you for introducing me to this artist.

  • Bozhan Bozhkov2 months ago

    I enjoy reading about people who achieve success despite facing pre-set obstacles. “My children are growing up in a global community. Their influences are not just from their back yard but all over the world, and they are so much more open about their lives". It is my hope that the world will become increasingly open-minded, and that all prejudices and inherited hatreds will be forgotten. There is strong resistance against globalization, but I believe that little by little, it will prevail.

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