INTERVIEW | LANRE MALAOLU EXPLORES MENTAL-HEALTH AWARENESS AMONGST BLACK MALES IN HIP-HOP THEATRE SHOW ‘ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM’

Photography by Camilla Greenwell

Pho­to­graphy by Cam­il­la Green­well

Something’s wrong. Can’t get out of bed, can’t con­cen­trate, can’t shake the mount­ing ten­sion. Some­thing unspoken is build­ing up, leak­ing out, tak­ing over…

Fus­ing phys­ic­al theatre, hip hop dance and spoken word, Ele­phant in The Room is an explos­ive solo that explores the men­tal health crisis and the phe­nomen­on of tox­ic mas­culin­ity. This semi-auto­bi­o­graph­ic­al work, cre­ated and per­formed by Lan­re Malaolu, takes a sharp side­ways look at the insi­di­ous stig­ma around men­tal health issues, ask­ing how race, class and cul­ture can affect the way we choose to address them. And what hap­pens when we don’t…

With live sound manip­u­la­tion from Jan Brzez­in­ski and dram­at­ur­gic­al sup­port from Sea­son But­ler and Zoe Laf­fer­ty. We catch up with Dir­ect­or Lan­re Malaolu to find out more. 

What inspired you to cre­ate this work?

My exper­i­ences with men­tal health, friends’ exper­i­ences and the fact that con­ver­sa­tions around black male men­tal health need kick start­ing in order to make a change.

You’ve described this piece as semi auto­bi­o­graph­ic­al. How import­ant is it for you to draw from your own exper­i­ences when mak­ing work?

Gen­er­ally my work stems from two places, my own per­son­al exper­i­ences and/or an impulse to under­stand and know more about the world. With the former, I use myself and exper­i­ences as a focal point because I have a dir­ect link to the emo­tions and “bag­gage” they bring, I can eas­ily tap into that. But, even using my own exper­i­ences as a found­a­tion, I always try to look at the big­ger pic­ture, the uni­ver­sal idea that it holds, in order for the work to con­nect to a range of people. Ele­phant in the Room focuses in on black male men­tal health as a start­ing point, but does so in a way where people of all back­grounds who exper­i­ence men­tal health issues/ chal­lenges full stop can hope­fully con­nect with it, explor­ing the top­ic along with asso­ci­ated themes like tox­ic mas­culin­ity.

Does this work give you a sense of cath­arsis?

I’m in the thick of it at the moment, so can’t really answer this yet as I’m just in ‘go mode’! But, in gen­er­al, I find that the true cath­arsis comes much later down the line after a pro­ject. This was the case with the film I made called FIG­URE . It wasn’t until a good 6 months after mak­ing that film that I real­ised how much of a cath­artic effect mak­ing it had on me.

Men­tal health is very top­ic­al at the moment. How does the black male per­spect­ive add to the con­ver­sa­tion?

Firstly, and most import­antly, the fact that it needs to be added into the con­ver­sa­tion. In terms of how it adds to the con­ver­sa­tion, I think it gives an insight to the nuances of being black and male — while exper­i­en­cing men­tal health issues — its chal­lenges and stig­ma. If you’re black and work­ing class, you’re more likely to be dia­gnosed with men­tal health prob­lems (and this is only if you look into tak­ing the neces­sary steps to get help). Factors like pover­ty and racism come into this, but also ele­ments like the main­stream men­tal health ser­vices fail­ing to under­stand or provide ser­vices that are accept­able and/or access­ible to non-white Brit­ish com­munit­ies. This needs to be addressed as there are so many young black men strug­gling.

How does this work dif­fer from your oth­er shows?

It’s a solo show that runs for an hour, which is a first for me. Oh, and it’s also the first time I’m work­ing with live sound manip­u­la­tion (with the G that is Jan Brzez­iński)

How import­ant is using hip hop theatre as a medi­um to address issues regard­ing tox­ic mas­culin­ity and men­tal health with­in the black com­munity?

Hip-hop theatre is my most organ­ic form of artist­ic expres­sion. It comes from a deep, deep place, and I think to open that portal and make work from that place is already polit­ic­al. Hip-hop has an energy and an imme­di­acy that you can’t ignore – it makes the exper­i­ence potent and excit­ing. Play­ing with move­ment also allows me to bounce between humour and drama in a way that seems to really work with audi­ences.

What do you want your audi­ence to take away from the show?

I hope they’ll find a start­ing point for con­ver­sa­tion, an inner vibra­tion and an impulse.

What they do with those things are up to them…

Catch Ele­phant In the Room all this week at the Cam­den People’s theatre. 

Tick­ets avail­able here: https://www.cptheatre.co.uk/production/elephant-in-the-room/

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Valerie Ebuwa

Valer­ie “wing girl” Ebuwa is a freel­ance dance artist and yoga teach­er from East Lon­don. She is cur­rently dan­cing for 3 con­tem­por­ary dance com­pan­ies and is one of the found­ing mem­bers of Eclectics Dance and CEO of Hip Hop House.

About Valerie Ebuwa

Valerie "wing girl" Ebuwa is a freelance dance artist and yoga teacher from East London. She is currently dancing for 3 contemporary dance companies and is one of the founding members of Eclectics Dance and CEO of Hip Hop House.