Black History Month may be over, but the concept of Black British-ness is something the artistic word continues to explore. The BBC continues to promote it on our TV screens, and the same is happening in the theatre world at the Kings Theatre in Islington where a run of Boy With Beer – a multi themed and multi layered play by Paul Boakye is hitting the stage for the first time in 25 years.
“It is a very, very beautiful love story,” says director Harry Mackrill, as he describes about the 1991 play set in Brixton. “It’s such a quiet, domestic play that deals with massive historical issues around sexuality and identity.”
The two-man show explores the relationship between Karl and Donovan whilst intricately tapping into themes such as identity, sex and new beginnings in the midst of what was the AIDS epidemic of the late 80s and early 90s. Mackrill suggested that Boy with Beer was ahead of its time – because when it was first performed, people were scared of what the play was saying and trying to represent. “The play is bold. There are moments of sex and it doesn’t shy away from its intentions,” he says.
But despite the hard-hitting intent of Boakye’s work, there’s clearly a more heart warming and touching undertone to the piece.
“The play manages to do that thing I love which is to look at the very specific snapshot before branching out to become a larger, more universal conversation,” says Mackrill.
The coming of age play explores a variety of themes and opens the audience’s eyes to give us not only a glimpse into Boakye’s own experiences, but a snapshot of the LBGT community that, since the 90s has undergone a huge transformation regarding acceptance and ‘equality’.
“As a gay man, I can only talk about the play through my own lens – and I rarely see myself portrayed on stage or mainstream media,” Mackrill explains; he first heard about the play through a friend who came across it in the Black Plays Archive. “But when you do see characters like you and aspects of yourself; that almost validates who you are and your perspective on the world.”
While the play explores sexuality Boy with Beer also delves into Black British life and culture. Music is key to this, as well as the imagery that Bayoke creates, based on his own experience. “The music is so exciting” Mackrill beams. “It transports audiences from their seats in the Kings Head Theatre into the world of Donovan – and particularly Karl and the nightclub scene which was prominent back then.” Mackrill also praises Rudimental’s Taurean Antoine Chagar, who created the evocative dub soundtrack.
Mackrill describes the rehearsal process as “joyful and creative” – and enjoyed working with actors Enyi Okoronkwo and Chin Nyenwe who portray Donovan and Karl in this two-hander show.
“They had to trust each other so much as the guys are playing very 3D parts, but we’ve had a lot of fun and both of the guys have thrown themselves into it.”
Neither Okoronkwo or Nyenwe knew the text before rehearsals started, but Mackrill says that they both had a big response to it, and that he feels it allowed them to express themselves in a profound sense.
Getting Boy with Beer back into the theatre marks a huge achievement. There are voices and experiences from both the black and LGBT community that need to be heard – and Mackrill is clear that the production is aiming for a wide audience.
“Rather than the communities it depicts, I want the play to have an effect on those who may not come into contact with them,” he says.
“I want our audience to have gone on a journey with the characters and to feel a bit of the liberation Karl and Donovan feel at the end of the play,” he adds.
“Boy with Beer talks about finding yourself, digging deep, accepting and committing to who you really are. Having watched these two characters go through that realisation and the difficulty to see them come out on the other side is very moving. ”
Boy with Beer is on until November 26 at the Kings Head Theatre in Islington.
Image: Theo Chadha