How a Dance-Theatre Show is Tackling Mental Health in the Black Male Community

The British actor and choreographer Lanre Malaolu has created a dance-theatre solo that explores issues surrounding mental health in the black male community. The dance-theatre piece is aptly titled Elephant in the Room and stars Malaolu himself as the protagonist Michael. The actor draws on his own experience of suffering from depression as a young, black, working-class man. The solo fuses physical theatre, hip-hop dance, and spoken word in order to explore the mental health crisis and toxic masculinity.

Malaolu’s personal struggles with depression revealed to him the heavy stigma that is attached to mental health issues, as well as the ways in which race, class, and culture can influence this stigma. Indeed, mental health stigma does not take place in a vacuum. While stigma may be pervasive in society, it can vary between different communities. This is particularly problematic in the black male community, where many young men would never dare speak up about their struggles. But Elephant in the Room aims to change this narrative by shining a light on how damaging it is to judge others’ – and one’s own – mental health issues.

Malaolu’s Inspiration for "Elephant in the Room"

Elephant in the Room began in Malaolu’s living room, where he wanted to come up with a quick solo performance that could help capture the essence of depression. He said, “I was like, ‘What’s one of the challenges that I’ve experienced with anxiety, depression? Getting out of bed.’” The scene he created involved physical theatre and hip-hop dance to help bring to life a depressed person’s desire just to get out of bed.

When Malaolu  performed this scene, it proved to be quite moving. People who saw it said he should start touring and show it to others. The problem, though, was that the scene was only 15 minutes long. So Malaolu  decided to expand the scene and turn it into a full-length show, which is “about a young man’s challenges with his mental health. But also how he interacts with different characters that he’s grown up with, and how they influence his perception [of his mental wellbeing].”

This isn’t the first time Malaolu has explored mental health issues in his work. For example, the actor worked as the movement director for Joe Penhall’s play Blue/Orange, which tackles institutional racism and mental health. Malaolu  is honest about his inspiration for Elephant in the Room. It all comes from his lived experience of living with mental health issues as a young black man in a working-class neighborhood. He said:

“I guess I looked at myself. I’m not saying I’m the spokesperson for working-class black mental health. I don’t want to say that. But [Elephant in the Room] is from the perspective of a working-class black man, where things like race and class come into play. When you think of mental health, or when you think of having to change the way you act in public …[The show] is just dissecting that, looking and challenging that, but also putting a mirror up and saying, “Well, look. This is the shit it’s contributing to, you know?” Any time I hear that suicide is the biggest killer of males under 45 in the UK, I always go, ‘What the fuck?’”

Mental Health in the Male Black Community

For many young black men, it’s incredibly difficult to open up about mental health problems. Men, in general, feel that they need to practice emotional stoicism in order to preserve their masculine identity. Many men are not comfortable talking about their emotions, which then leads to emotional volatility. The resulting pent up anger and resentment can cause many issues in a man’s life, especially in terms of his relationships. But this pressure to hide one’s emotions is felt even more strongly among black men. This is due to the fact that in the black male community, there is a heavy emphasis on being ‘hard’, macho, and strong.

Shows of vulnerability or sensitivity for black men are highly emasculating. Jor-El Carabello, a therapist over at Talkspace, points out that black men may tend to be prized for their looks or body, rather than their intellect or emotional intelligence. Carabello has spent a lot of time with black male clients and has found that many have grown up with the belief that their emotional lives have little value. Statistics show that black people in the UK are more likely to be diagnosed with mental health issues, more likely to experience a poor treatment outcome, and more likely to disengage from treatment. This is because race, culture, and poverty are closely connected to mental health.

Stigmatizing attitudes about mental health in the black male community won’t change overnight. But shows like Elephant in the Room can still have a powerful influence. Malaolu’s innovative show is helping to shine a light on the unique issues that black men face and will hopefully inspire other men to open up and seek help when they need it.