When I was in what we would now call Year 5, I arrived in the classroom one morning to see Adrian Smithson (not his real name) sobbing his heart out by himself at his table. We soon learned that his father had died and I think he’d been brought to school early. The point of this anecdote is that so surprised was I to see a toughie, very bright boy weeping, I remember it clearly half a century later. Had Adrian been Adriana I would, no doubt, long since have forgotten it. So conditioned are we to the view that boys and men are not supposed to express their emotions that I was shocked even at age 8 or 9, when poor Adrian’s circumstances were, of course, utterly terrible.
And that’s the point of this fine piece, Boys Don’t. Based on the idea of performance poetry it presents three deeply moving monologues which explore the idea that boys and men really do need to be able to express their feelings – by crying, if necessary. The whole work includes four monologues but the performers rotate so that only three appear at any one performance. Steve Tisane was not part of the performance I saw.
Each man – yes, it’s an all male cast and justifiably so – is a talented poet/actor who has written a story from the point of view of a young person and then performs it. Inevitably, we learn in the Q/A at the end, each monologue is firmly rooted in the performer’s own real life experience.
Thus Justin Coe recalls crying a lot as a child and finally feeling exonerated only when he saw his stiff-upper-lip, macho grandfather weeping at his wife’s funeral because a friend hugged him in sympathy. Coe has woven this into an intensely thoughtful account of a family in which all the males for many generations were “hard men, scarred men, always-on-their-guard men”. All the writing is in free flowing, occasionally rhymed verse. Coe’s is more obviously poetic than the other two.
Hadiru Mahdi’s story tells of a boy starting secondary school and feeling utterly torn between loyalty to his mother and the steer he gets from his glamorous older cousin. The result is that he ends up in a playground fight because he can’t express what he really feels. The conversation with his mother at the end of it is breathtaking in its truthfulness. Mahdi is very adept at role switching in order to keep the narrative flowing coherently.
Tanaka Mhishi describes a boy inclined to get angry and violent at home while his parents clearly have problems of their own. In the end his mother gives him a notebook and tells him to write his passion out of his system. Like the other two, it’s a poignant and very compelling piece of acting.
So it’s a simple, set free show whose only prop is a huge tube which makes a rain-like sound when tilted. This is passed like a baton between actors as a linking device and there’s also a short shared intro, repeated at the end. Beautifully directed (by Rosemary Harris) as it all is, this was the only part of this otherwise excellent show which felt pointless and contrived. It would have worked even better if we had simply launched into the first monologue.
Boys Don’t is a play which speaks to boys and men. But it’s not intended exclusively for them. Girls need to think about these issues too. I rather wish I’d seen it when I was in Year 5, in fact.