“We’re all human”: An interview with Joseph Black, star of Sessions at Soho Theatre
Tackling the mental health crisis in men, Ifeyinwa Frederick’s new show Sessions strives to explore issues surrounding depression, its causes, and how it might relate to masculinity. The play, which has been touring throughout October, focuses on the life of a man who has just turned 30 and is facing a range of mental health issues. A collaborative project with Paines Plough, it juxtaposes humour with the brutal reality of depression.
Paines Plough’s Sessions is at Soho Theatre until 4th December. In advance of the show, Joseph Black, who plays the protagonist Tunde Adeyemi, granted The Upcoming an exclusive interview.
What drew you toward Paines Plough’s Sessions?
Ifey’s script; the relatability of the piece and the opportunity to show the complexity of mental health struggles, whilst challenging perceptions. I believed there was a lot I connected with and it was a story I thought was important to tell.
That, and it’s a one-hander, touring then ending in Soho Theatre for a month, with Paines Plough, right after lockdown… it wasn’t difficult to get excited for this.
What was the first play you ever saw?
I genuinely don’t remember. This might not have much to do with where I grew up in South East London, but I remember feeling theatre wasn’t for people like me. Luckily my Mum signed me up to a youth theatre company called GYPT when I was 11, which then got me into National Youth Theatre and then eventually drama school.
I do remember my godmother taking me to a fringe piece during Black History Month when I was a teenager, which definitely had an effect on me.
In what ways do you think a play about mental health in young men is relevant today?
I believe plays on mental health, for all genders, have always been relevant and always will be. Mental health issues often make people feel extremely alienated. In my experience, knowing you’re not the only one going through something can be a great step to understanding it is possible to get through it, and that you’ll be understood by others too.
Particularly for young men? Please bear with me, I have a lot of opinions.
Reputation can make your life easier or harder. Being someone “strong” and “with their s*** together” attracts partners, people and opportunities. But “having issues” can leave someone feeling judged and ostracised. I believe the difference for young men is that there is less support from society and less willingness by ourselves to talk about it for fear of judgement.
Regarding society, men have had the most privileged position in society, so the support wasn’t deemed needed. However, this leads to a quick categorisation of what kind of man you are, and not all men are privileged equally. But every human tackles difficulties.
This thought: just one day of showing vulnerability can turn you from a Top Boy to a Wasteman, and then your life is ruined. So, to talk about your issues could expose you as someone with problems, aka being a failure, because, surely, it’s just you. This way of thinking, in my experience, is very common.
Hopefully this show adds self-care as an expectation in the minds of the young men watching it, who experience difficulties with mental health, and adds context – for everyone.
Do you think there’s a particular link between masculinity and depression?
I honestly don’t, but I can see why it seems that way. However, I believe there is a strong link to expectations and depression – those placed on ourselves, but also by others.
As humans we all want to feel respected, loved and safe – basic human requirements. Believing that the way you are is the cause for lacking any of the above, I’ve seen lead to depression.
I honestly believe there are so many opinions telling men that they don’t know what masculinity is, from both sides of the argument, it’s hard not to feel like you’re doing it wrong. For the record, I do believe “toxic masculinity” is a thing, and it is a destructive coping mechanism (one of the characteristics being emotional suppression). But I don’t think masculinity is a bad thing at all, it just depends on your definition.
Do you think Covid-19 and the lockdown have had an additional impact on mental health (both for men or more generally speaking)?
Absolutely. The term cabin fever – referring to the psychological effects of being stuck indoors over the winter months due to ice etc – for five or six times that length, the world had to do it, to the point where even home bodies I know were struggling. I love my space, and I ended up cycling to Brighton from London one day just to get out and change scenery.
Who is your character, and how does he engage with the themes of the play?
I play a man called Tunde Adeyemi on his 30th birthday, looking back at his first experience with therapy, the weight he puts on the big 3-0, what it means to be a man, his relationships and his place in them.
Do you think Sessions has a chance to promote discussions about mental health in young men? Why or why not?
Proudly, I can say, absolutely I do. Having toured this show, we’ve seen varied audiences – ages ranging from 14 to 80 plus, different socio-economic backgrounds, races etc. The conversations afterwards have been amazing to have, to listen to and to read! So many people have engaged with me on my social media about their experiences and I appreciate them all.
But I also believe it tackles relationships, self-expectation and therapy in people of all ages, colours, creeds and genders.
Have you had any personal experience with poor mental health?
I definitely have had many. From my own personal experiences, and friends and family. I’ve seen the results of addiction and loss of jobs, relationships, people etc. Then there are more extreme examples like going to stop a suicide attempt and visiting a different friend in an institution. But also seeing the majority come out the other side in triumph – but that doesn’t mean that’s a destination, it’s just a more positive journey, but it’s still a journey. We’re all human.
Are there any other exciting projects lined up for you in the near future?
I’m continuing to audition and have meetings, but for now, my next gig is reading stories on the last day of my friend’s wedding!
Thanks a lot for your time!
Sessions is on at Soho Theatre from 24th September until 4th December 2021. For further information or to book tickets visit here.
Watch a trailer for Sessions here: