Back in 2017, Lanre Malaolu, a director and choreographer working across both theatre and film, released a short video entitled ‘Is Mental Health, The Elephant In The Room?’ It was a monologue performance, blending hip-hop dancing with short staccato sentence. The semi-autobiographical performance piece created a space, for a discussion around the taboos surrounding black male mental health, a topic which is rarely discussed either online or in real life.
Fast forward to 2019, and what was once a three minute video on YouTube, has transformed into a 45 minute solo piece of performance theatre. Now with extra financial support, Elephant In The Room has a home for 18 nights at the Camden Peoples Theatre as part of the Sick Of The Fringe series, an organisation which curates festivals, runs community-responsive programming. The theme of their second London programme is Care & Destruction, allowing for fearless conversations to uncover the stories we are not always seeing.
In this extended version of his initial video piece, Lanre again blends dance, drama with spoken word. He takes on multiple characters as well as the main protagonist Michael. Michael is an over-zealous youth football coach, a working-class, black man, who occasionally attempts to speak about his mental health with his friend and barber. These short vignettes slowly unfold during the duration of the play, painting a picture of Michael’s mental health.
The pressure of Michael’s mental health grows as the play unfolds. The play opens with a visual depiction of the difficulty the protagonist is facing to get out of bed in the morning. Lanre uses his own body, contorting across the stage to depict the depression as it becomes a never ending cycle, forcing his own body back down each time he attempts to get up. Then we see interactions where Michael appears to have a “normal” life, he’s coping, he’s working, he’s meeting friends, he’s out and about, nonetheless, something isn’t right, something that isn’t given a name is looming across Michael in his every-day life.
The phenomenon of toxic masculinity is also something Lanre doesn’t shy away from. Encapsulated in the oral, macho refrain ‘dominate’, ‘dominate’, which is heard throughout – serving as a stark reminder, that for some men, “weakness is not an option”, which Michael tells his young football team. And it is also captured in scenes where Michael is silent, and Lanre takes on other characters, all unable to give Michael the platform or space to discuss how he feels, without being shunned; his friend finds his questions about feelings “weird” as does his barber.
Race is also touched on every so slighted, most notably in a nuanced scene where Michael’s mind races as he walks the streets, wondering if people are crossing the road because of his blackness. It’s these intersections, touching on subjects which are all often perceived as topics which people shun around. Lanre singlehandedly tackling these, is what makes the Elephant In The Room a powerful performance piece. Paired with the fact that Lanre performs this entirely solo on stage, Lanre allows himself to become vulnerable for his audience, making this incredible emotive viewing.
A fact, from the Mental Health Organisation, was stuck in my head throughout the performance; suicide is leading cause of death among young people aged 20-34 years old, in the UK, and it’s considerably higher in men. Elephant In The Room provides just a glimmer into the struggles faced by many black men across the country, and through his performance Lanre is forcing his audience to think about this, and inevitably, sparking a much needed discussion.
Elephant in the Room is at Camden People’s Theatre from 2nd until 20th April 2019 as part of The Sick of the Fringe: Care & Destruction.