Tobi King Bakare Talks Us Through the Brotherhood of For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Hue Gets Too Heavy

Words by Christina Dean

The London theatre scene has never been stronger – the city has played host to some massive world premieres in the city, been the place where movie-to-stage adaptations come to life, and had a parade of A-list names come to tread the boards (with plenty more on the way too). But there’s one show that’s really captured the attention of critics and audiences alike, returning after three previous sold-out runs and having been extended again. 

For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Hue Gets Too Heavy by Ryan Calais Cameron, which was inspired by Ntozake Shange’s seminal work For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf and conceived in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s killing in 2012, offers a powerful insight into the Black experience in Britain. The play uses six young Black men who meet for group therapy to explore topics like sex, colourism, love, masculinity and trauma, through movement, storytelling, music and verse.

We caught up with Tobi King Bakare, who before taking on the role of Onyx in For Black Boys has appeared in TV shows like Temple and I May Destroy You, to chat about breaking down stereotypes, building a brotherhood and dancing to Kendrick Lamar.

Tell us a bit about yourself. Who do you play in For Black Boys and what attracted you to that character? 

I started acting when I was 16, 17, I’m an actor and writer. Growing up it was more literature for me  and I discovered drama through a theatre show called Believers. I watched that when I was in Year 10 and that got me into acting and I’ve been doing it ever since. I’m quite laid back, I’m really chill, which is funny because my character Onyx is hot headed, he’s what you would call a roadman. It’s literally the opposite of me, I’m always smiling! It’s fun to play a character like that and it’s really important for me with characters like that to break down stereotypes. Everyone has a story and everyone has a journey, and one of the main highlights for me playing a character like Onyx is being able to break down stereotypes and pre-judgements people have for characters, roadmen, like that.

What resonates with you the most about Ryan Calais Cameron’s work?

I watched the play when it was on with the last cast and I remember that being the first time sitting in a theatre, watching and turning off my actor brain. I sat there and thought I could see a bit of me in every single one of these characters and every single one of these stories. And if it wasn’t me, it was someone really close to me. I felt so seen and touched, and I remember hearing that the auditions were coming back on, it was like yeah of course I have to be there. I don’t think there was any young black male actor who wouldn’t wanna be in that room.

For Black Boys is very much an ensemble piece and the relationship between the six of you, how have you found the experience of working with the rest of the cast? 

Yes 100%, we all feel like the show wouldn’t be what it is if any of us were different and I’m sure the last cast felt that as well. I think it’s such a special show that bonds us. It’s also the first time I’ve worked with young creatives around my age. For me it’s been so fun. Outside of the work we spend time together, we go out on Saturdays and stuff. That has been a huge aid to the process because the work is, as much as there is joy and fun in the play, we’re talking about really hard hitting topics, and I feel like we all feel like we have that safety blanket where we do go there, we do get emotional, because these things affect us, not just in the play but in real life.  So knowing that we can really rely on each other, like a brotherhood, I wouldn’t change that for the world. 

You have those bonds personally now as well as professionally so no matter what happens, or if some of these issues affect you in real life later down the line, you’ve got each to lean on based on what you’ve been through in the play. 

100%. I think it’s exactly that. Even in the rehearsal process because we all started on the same page, no one had done the show, we’re starting from scratch. The creatives had worked on the show before, so it was a whole new experience where we’re like in a bubble, we’re the only ones who don’t know what’s going on, it’s new to us, so that heightened our bonding and feeling like we can really trust and rely on one another.

Did you feel any pressure having seen the show before and that it had been well received in its different versions?

Yeah there’s a balance between pressure and inspiration because I knew the last cast as well, seeing their work was amazing. Work like this leaves you so inspired, even my cousin came to watch the show, he works in finance and was like, “Yeah I’m gonna get into acting”, and I was like “Bro it might be a bit too late!” I really understood him, what he was saying was that he’d never seen a play like this where things that he goes through and his experience is actually being shared, people are enjoying it and responding, so he’s like yeah I could do this too!

It’s that thing of people needing to see something for them to know it’s for them, seeing that on stage, knowing that theatre is for people who maybe thought it wasn’t for them, it opens up those worlds that may have felt like they were closed. 

When I mentioned earlier the first show that I ever went to, it was actually the tension. I didn’t wanna go because I genuinely didn’t think theatre was for me. I never knew i was gonna be an actor and once seeing that I was like wow, the whole world changed, this is incredible, but if I didn’t see that then I probably wouldn’t be doing this now. 

How important is the use of poetry, music and movement in the production?

The show is like a river, which is a quote from our MD John, everything flows to serve the purpose of the show. There’s moments even in Ryan’s work where he doesn’t have punctuation, there’s no full stops, no commas because as you’re saying it, you’re meant to get out of breath.  It does something to your body physically when you get out of breath, and these emotions come in. it makes the experience real for the actor and for the audience, so that’s the magic in the poetry. The movement and the song is when words aren’t enough. You need to get it out, you need to express through singing, holding a note or physically with your body. There’s some amazing moments in the show where the characters rise up to emotional peaks and they let it out through music or movement, so those are my favourite parts of the show. 

Do you have a favourite or standout moment in the show? 

No bias as well but one of my favourite parts is a ‘The Blacker The Berry’ moment where basically Onyx has a monologue about his dad. At the end of the monologue he’s frustrated about how his relationship with his dad led him to meeting guys on the street and those were his new brothers, his new family, and at the end of the sequence we all start krumping and dancing to ‘The Blacker The Berry’ by Kendrick Lamar, and every show it’s electric. It’s cathartic for us. 

Is dance something that comes naturally to you? Have you done it a lot before or was that a more challenging aspect of learning the show? 

Yeah that was the biggest challenge for me! 100% a big challenge for me. I didn’t train, I went to a Saturday school where I didn’t really do any dance. Being in the rehearsal room one of my biggest insecurities was dancing and choreo, these lot would say do it on the eighth count, like what is that? What the hell is the eighth count? So I think naturally I can move but then it’s learning the jargon and technicalities of all that. I’m really happy because the cast really supported me, they’d stay with me after and we’d go through the choreo. Everyone knew I would ask to put extra support on the choreo and they would help. Thankfully that sequence is more freestyle so you can just do what you feel, which is where I prefer to be in my movement work. 

Why do you think the show has been so well received by both audiences and critics?

So many reasons. Firstly I would say the show is magical. There’s something that happens, the mix of the poetry, what we’re talking about, who is talking about it, who’s in the audience, it just feels like every night at the end of the show, it’s nothing I’ve ever seen. Even being in the audience, I remember seeing it and going wow, it’s like I’ve been cleansed watching the show, I feel like something’s passed through me. I don’t know how to really describe it, it’s just a mixture of everything that makes the show magical. I think the other part is because it’s so fresh, you don’t see stories like this often unfortunately. They’re really important in our diverse London but we don’t see them on stages like this, and to this quality, and I think because it’s here people are just taking it and they’re happy to see it. Like my cousin, he’s surprised that his stories are being told. 

Not only just being told but growing, in the way the show has progressed from a small theatre to a bigger stage to the West End.

Yeah it’s incredible. So after our run I think it would have been in the West End for six months in total including the last cast, which is insane to me. From the first run in New Diorama to now and there is a future, fingers crossed, for this show anywhere. It feels like this show is growing and it’s still impacting the world hugely.

What do you have planned for when your run ends?

I wrote a play called Before I Go, it’s a one man show and it has actually similar themes to For Black Boys…. It’s about a boy who can’t express himself, a boy who needs to learn to talk about his feelings. He’s a typical boy, thinks he can talk to girls, he’s very charismatic and approachable but the irony is that he can’t talk about his feelings. The play runs with live music, it has a live band, it’s gonna be at Brixton House, that’s running in July and I’m really looking forward to it. We did it two years ago and last year, and it was sold out, and it’s gonna get published as a book which is really cool, so yeah that’s what’s after the show. 

For Black Boys Who Have Considered Suicide When the Hue Gets Too Heavy is playing at the Garrick Theatre until 1st June 2024