Paul Boakye’s intention in writing Boy With Beer was to create a space for black queer identity to be explored. In our recent interview with Boayke, he explained that he had never seen characters like him on stage, and “wanted to tell the story.” Harry MacKrill’s revival of his now 25-year-old play creates that space beautifully, allowing Boakye’s beautifully and sensitively developed characters to explore their growing feelings for one another.
Enyi Okornkwo plays Donovan, a frenetic, closeted British-Caribbean whose hyper-masculinity, underpinned with insecurity, may be familiar to those of us who share that cultural heritage. Enyi interprets Donovan with incredible empathy. Bubbling away under the bull-in-a-china-shop bravado at all times is Donovan’s fear – of being outed, of rejection, of not measuring up. Allowing us to see the anxiety under the aggression, the urgency under the impatience, is so crucial in a world of stereotypes and two dimensional imaginings of black masculinity.
Chin Nyenwe’s Karl, a 27-year-old photographer, on the other hand, is mild-mannered, reflective and poetic – a role that could have easily been overshadowed by Donovan, had it not been for Chin’s effortlessly confident performance. He cleverly fills the spaces that Donovan cannot, balancing Donovan’s brash masculinity with self-assured sexuality, and an intelligent wit that’s more than a match for Donovan’s class-clown sense of humour. Being set in the play’s setting – Donovan’s flat – allows him to own the space in a way Donovan cannot, ensuring his presence is felt just as strongly throughout.
Staged, for all intents and purposes, in the round, the audience watch their energies collide, shift and grow together over the course of an hour and 10 minutes. When they first meet there’s a personality clash that’s both hilarious and relatable, particularly to anyone who’s tried to power through a date which, on paper, should have been a write-off from the get-go. But as we’re invited deeper into their relationship, we learn that, although the express themselves in very different ways, their similarities run far deeper than their differences. This is most apparent when we learn that Karl returns to the closet when he visits his native Ghana, suggesting that, just like Donovan, he too is running away in some sense.
The power dynamics shift back and forth, with both actors making room for neediness, bravado, vulnerability, and tenderness, showing flashes of synergy among the many moment of dissonance, while the palpable, instant chemistry between the two actors – magnified by the intimate King’s Head Theatre stage – keeps us believing in their determination to build something between them, even when things seem hopeless.
Being set in the ’90s, there are elements of the play that (thankfully) feel somewhat dated. The threat of AIDS hangs over their relationship, and Donovan gets into a fight while trying to cottage, for example. But ultimately the play follows two men filling the gaps in their lives with each other. That never feels too distant, no matter the cultural context.
But, perhaps more importantly, the play creates a refuge from racism and homophobia, where both characters can bring their battle wounds – both metaphorical and literal – from a world that’s so hostile to them, to be tended to and healed. In that sense, Boy With Beer is more than a love story. It’s an exploration of how shared identity can mend what discrimination and oppression damages. And in that sense, it’s never been more important.
‘Boy With Beer’ runs until November 26th at the King’s Head Theatre, London. Tickets are available here.