Andre: Are you scared?
Andre: Me too.
— from the opening scene of When Boys Exhale
Two notable productions have been running on DC stages this month featuring narratives of the lives of Black gay men. Ain’t that something? One, The Hot Wing King, gives us portraits of Black gay men in their 40s (at Studio Theatre, see my review). The other, When Boys Exhale (at Anacostia Arts Center), is about queer Black men in their 20s. The difference between gay and queer is relevant and exemplifies the difference in the worlds the characters of these two plays inhabit.
When Boys Exhale started out with a sold-out engagement at Anacostia Arts Center in 2020. Between that premiere and this current reprise, Exhale had a sold-out run in Atlanta. (For more about the work and its creator, see John Stoltenberg’s interview with the playwright and director, Anthony Green).
This play is a fervent, authentic, and hysterically funny testament to — and celebration of — the challenges and achievements of queer Black men as their lives are played out in this early part of the 21st century.
The United States is a very different place than it was before gay folks rose to resist police harassment at the Stonewall Inn. Life for gay folks is different. (Gay folks can now marry each other, for goodness sakes.) The heady and progressive era of gay liberation that followed Stonewall, the desperate political activism during the lethal HIV/AIDS epidemic (before the development of effective antiretroviral drugs for its treatment), and current efforts to return the country to that pre-Stonewall era as part of its lurch toward fascism — these changes are all reflected in this highly entertaining play.
The play follows Andre (Derwin King) and Jonathan (Collier Randall), two queer Black men, who meet regularly to watch their favorite movie, Waiting to Exhale, check in on each other, commiserate, and celebrate their life experiences. The progression of their friendship is the heart of the play.
Andre and Jonathan are engaged in the appropriate developmental tasks for men in their age group: working to achieve a sense of identity in an occupation, trying to develop intimate relationships, seeking independence from their parents’ beliefs in favor of their own. Over the course of four and a half years, we watch their struggles with coming out, Jonathan’s confrontations with his mother, Sheila (Kristin Michelle Young), over her homophobia, Jonathan’s resistance to and ultimate acceptance of his mother’s aid and devotion for him. We witness Jonathan’s stormy relationship with the very sexy Khalil (Ephraim Nehemiah), facilitated by the ever-helpful Andre. We witness the effect of both HIV and generational trauma on their lives. And we witness the steps they each take toward self-healing. It is a panoramic portrait of the deep humanity of queer Black men as informed and sustained by their understanding of the intimate vulnerability in friendships they have watched among Black women.
The play is in two acts, each with four scenes set in different times and places, a challenge in a small black box. The resourceful director Green has chosen to extend the pauses between scenes such that the play becomes a series of blackout skits. It’s a choice that works beautifully. As the cast and crew use the pauses to make costume and set changes, the audience is encouraged to chat, stretch, use the facilities, if necessary. Each scene bears the title of a song from the soundtrack of the movie Waiting to Exhale, and a song evocative of the film is sampled during the blackouts. Some members of the audience hummed or sang along sotto voce. This production, despite its dramatic and moving content, becomes much more like a party than a wake: a party hosted by members of the Black queer community for members of that community and open to anyone in the mood to celebrate life.
The costumes, especially for Sheila and Andre, were pointed dramaturgical statements that brought laughter and applause. The performers each have stand-out moments that were enhanced by the blackout-skit format. Both Kristin Michelle Young and Derwin King grab onto the scenery and don’t let go until their final exit. They have a scene together that also garnered well-deserved applause. Ephraim Nehemiah and Collier Randall brought the necessary romantic sparks to make the audience lust for both of them.
Running time: approximately 2 hours 45 minutes including a 20 minute intermission.
COVID Safety: Anacostia Arts Center follows the DC Mayor’s guidelines, which currently make mask-wearing indoors optional.
When Boys Exhale by Anthony Green
Collier Randall: Jonathan
Derwin King: Andre
Kristin Michelle Young: Sheila
Ephraim Nehemiah: Khalil
Director: Anthony Green
Production Manager: Jamal Gordon
Producer / Stage Manager: JT Smitty
Assistant Director / Production Designer: Lizz Smith
Technical Director: Hillary Reskin
Hair / Makeup / Styling: Kelsey Deberry
Production Assistant: Michael Merritt aka R.E.A.G.L.E
What it means ‘When Boys Exhale’: A Q&A with Anthony Green (interview by John Stoltenberg)