The Boys Project by Chris Sonnex

Chris Sonnex was a producer on The Boys Project.

Bryony Kimmings and I started The Boys Project around three years ago. The idea was to engage with young men from council estates up and down the country, to engage with them in a political and art context. This was a project that would shift the power balance that we have in society, where many young working class men, feel powerless, voiceless and demonised.

There’s many contributing factors to this. These boys aren’t engaged by politicians, they are deemed pointless to campaign to as they are seen not to vote, the lack of engagement in politics is even more apparent when we look at the makeup of government. The mainstream media demonises them as benefit cheats, feckless and feral and when it comes to many boys of colour they are blamed for petty crime, knife crime and drug dealing. As a whole in the arts, there is a diversity problem which means we see a lack of working class and people of colour in the industry, not just in the public eye (like on stage) but also behind the scenes, writers, directors, producers, designers and many more. It became more and more apparent while working with these incredible boys, that they only saw three options to make enough money to “get out” of their environment, become a footballer, become a rapper or become a drug dealer. Most of The boys never felt that they had the privilege to choose any other career. This project aimed to join the battles that so many other excellent people and organisations have started.

On our travels we met many boys. We came together as a political art army. They went up and down the country and met many professionals in their field, Owen Jones, Akala, Inua Ellams to name but a few. The boys were learning and expanding their work and understanding of worlds that they had been excluded from, along the way they would create art, perform or write, take what they had learned and use it for themselves. It was very clear immediately that the boys had many many talents, they were writers, poets, musicians, visual artists, dancers, politicians, film makers, and so much more. The boys refused to be put in a box. The boys could be whatever they wanted to be, as long as people listened to them, as long as people cared.

As the project carried on over the years, it went through many different phases. Recently we have been able to work with a smaller group of the boys to create a performance. Unfortunately for varying reasons we couldn’t work with all of the boys, but we had ten from London and Birmingham. The boys were determined to do two things, firstly honour and speak for all the boys on the project over the years and boys like them all over the country, and secondly to create a piece of cross discipline theatre that would address the political landscape at the moment in an informative and entertaining piece. The boys felt that the most political action they could do was to have their voice heard in a theatre, in the Royal Court, the birth place of the angry young men. To do this we went away for a week. Away from the hustle and bustle of the big city to Hawkwood College, a residency, in the middle of Gloucester, surrounded by acres of green space. The boys spent the week talking to artists like Mr Gee and Sabrina Mahfouz, creating work, and playing with their form. This week was captured on film here.

It was an intensive week where we talked about a range of art and political and personal views. I remember a lot of the boys making statements and ending their articulate and intelligent declarations with “ya get me” or “do you know what I’m saying” I thought about this a lot, why do I, alongside a lot of people from working class backgrounds say this? DO YOU GET ME? The truth is that so many people don’t, they don’t get them, they don’t care. It’s a statement that is looking for acceptance, an acceptance of ideas, and acceptance that they belong in the conversation, an acceptance that people do get them. This gives the listener power, not the speaker. They knew they could change this. Over the week at Hawkwood, we all knew that an audience would get them, that the boys had something to say in an artistic, political and entertaining way. We had to perform.

We came together last week, to take all the writing and pieces of art that they had made, to piece together a performance, to give the art a platform. To give the boys a platform. They of course smashed it. They created a performance that was funny, awe inspiring, important and political, and more importantly quintessentially them. Their voices were on stage and the audience was blown away. Whether it was the incredible singing voice of Darcy Wright, the laidback but cutting raps of Brown Ntoto, the theatrical understanding of Joshua Grant, the acting of Kamal Huggins, the political word play poetry and writing of Nabhaan Rizwan, the statement graffiti of Callum Simmons, The energetic words of Alika Agidi-Jeffs or the story-telling abilities of Michael Ullah, each boy had their voice heard, each word made the audience see them as what they were, not boys from council estates, but artists. Artists of the highest calibre.

The project had so many great organisations and people on board helping each step of the way, which we should thank and give props to. Bryony Kimmings, The Mac in Birmingham, The Roundhouse, the Royal Court, West Yorkshire Playhouse, The Lowry, Hawkwood College. Wonderful facilitators like Romana Flello (Young Court Manager at the Royal Court), Linda Bloomfield and Josie Bamford from the Roundhouse, Daniel Whitehouse, Jacob Crutchley, Tom Parkinson, David Heinemann all independent facilitators, Pierpaolo Inga (filmmaker) Sabrina Mahfouz (writer) Mr Gee (poet) among so many others. What was inspirational and incredible about the project was that it was always about The Boys, never about anyone else, we were all there for them, for whatever and whenever they needed. The most important part of this project was and will always be the boys, and for this I thank all of them that were involved from start to finish, and all the boys that weren’t involved in the next steps. The performance was for you all.

Keep your eyes out for the next steps. The boys are eager to keep going and blowing audiences away up and down the country.

Read a blog post here on the project by Nabhaan Rizwan, one of the Boys.

Photo: The Boys Project on their Hawkwood College residency by Loving Lotus Productions