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‘Thoughts of a Colored Man’: Theater Review

The Hollywood Reporter logo The Hollywood Reporter 10/14/2021 Lovia Gyarkye

Thoughts of a Colored Man is the kind of play for which I make excuses. The Broadway production of Keenan Scott II’s new work is a study of Black masculinity and “blends spoken word, slam poetry, rhythm and humor” to tell the stories of a group of Black men living in Brooklyn. Based on this description alone, it sounds like the kind of project — experimental in structure, bold in vision, and written and directed by Black people — that I want to succeed in the glaringly white world of theater. And yet, days after seeing this entertaining but emotionally inert play, I am resistant to passing judgment, plagued by the ways it fell short for me.

Scott’s drama, directed by Steve H. Broadnax III, premieres during a particularly exciting time on Broadway. Not only does this season represent a trepidatious return to theaters after nearly two years of a pandemic-mandated shutdown, but the inclusion of seven plays by Black playwrights reflects the impact of the national discourse on race in response to George Floyd’s murder. Joining a lineup that includes Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s Pass Over, Douglas Lyons’ Chicken & Biscuits, Lynn Nottage’s Clyde’s and Dominique Morisseau’s Skeleton Crew, Scott stands in good company. There’s no doubt that part of my inner conflict concerns the hype around the show and its moment. It’s thrilling to see Broadway embrace more Black playwrights, but tardy diversity efforts only put more pressure on the works that do end up in front of an audience.

Thoughts of a ColoredMan opens with little fanfare. The simplicity of the set — designed by Robert Brill — belies the forthcoming narrative roller coaster. Scott writes in a style, which he terms “slam narrative,” that recalls Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls… (which will have its own Broadway revival in 2022). The protagonists are archetypes of different Black men, sketches reflecting a broad range of experiences.

Happiness (Bryan Terrell Clark) is a vision of upward mobility. We meet him on his morning jog as he takes in the sights, sounds and smells of his new Brooklyn neighborhood. Anger (Tristan Mack Wilds, in a strong Broadway debut) lives in the shadow of an unrealized dream of playing professional basketball and coaches kids in the neighborhood for a living. Passion (Luke James) is a teacher committed to his students and has a baby on the way. Depression (an incredibly engaging Forrest McClendon) works at the new Whole Foods in the neighborhood to help support his mother and his younger brother. He’s an engineering genius but doesn’t have the means or opportunity to prove it. Love (Dyllón Burnside) and Lust (Da’Vinchi) are two peas in a pod; rarely do you see one without the other. They both grew up in the church, but Love is an understated hopeless romantic who scribbles poems in his free time while Lust seems to be in competition with himself to see how many women he can sleep with. Finally, there’s Wisdom (Esau Pritchett), a griot-type figure who runs a barbershop that doubles as a watering hole for the other men.

The play functions as a series of snapshots of the lives of the seven men, loosely connected by its setting in Bedford-Stuyvesant. They introduce themselves one at a time through spoken word, rhymes and the occasional song. Meeting them at different points in their respective routines — Depression restocking aisles; Lust and Love chopping it up at the B43 bus stop on Tompkins and Fulton — gives us a sense of which kind of Brooklyn they occupy and gracefully supports the play’s thematic thread concerning gentrification. Although some of the monologues come off as clichéd, they hint at the potential within the characters, whose backstories seem ripe for excavation.

But Scott doesn’t tease out these narratives as forcefully as he can, and as a result, parts of Thoughts of a Colored Man feel flat despite the emphatic performances. The conversations between the men rely on generalizations about how Black men are seen and treated in America without offering detailed enough backstories to prevent them from feeling stale. And the number of issues Scott tries to tackle doesn’t help the cause. The play might have felt less rushed had he focused on fewer protagonists.

There are moments when the experimental drama nearly reaches its aimed-for degree of emotional vivacity. In those scenes, Scott burrows into the details. Take a particularly striking exchange between Happiness and Depression which reveals that they are more similar than they think. Or what feels like a throwaway comment from Lust about his mother that clarifies much of the character’s behavior earlier in the play. It’s in these moments, when Scott challenges his characters to defend their beliefs and convictions or anchors his story in vivid details, that the production feels purposeful. That passion serves a greater purpose too, helping the play feel less dated than it is. After the past several years, when public conversations about Blackness and masculinity have become more nuanced, Thoughts of a Colored Man can feel basic in its observations about both.

In an interview with Broadway Direct, Scott speaks tenderly about looking within his community for inspiration, and it’s evident how seriously he takes that responsibility. Yet I was struck by his response to a question about additional research he might have conducted. Scott says: “I didn’t have to do anything outside of my own existence. I didn’t have to do any personal research because I know all of these men I was writing about.” But I’m not so sure of that. There is value in revisiting and querying the narratives we think we know best. It’s often through such investigation that we can confront contradictions, unearth unlikely motivations, or simply see the present in a different way. I wonder about versions of Thoughts of a Colored Man that might have taken these possibilities into consideration.


Video: ‘Thoughts of a Colored Man’ Producer on the push for diversity on Broadway (Yahoo! Finance)

Replay Video
 

Venue: John Golden Theatre, New York

Cast: Dyllón Burnside, Bryan Terrell Clark, Esau Pritchett, Da’Vinchi, Luke James, Forrest McClendon, Tristan Mack Wilds

Director: Steve H. Broadnax III

Music, lyrics and book: Te’la, Kamauu

Set designer: Robert Brill

Costume designer: Toni-Leslie James, Devario D. Simmons

Lighting designer: Ryan O’Gara

Sound designer: Mikaal Sulaiman

Projection designer: Sven Ortel

Executive producer: Lane Marsh

Presented by Brian Moreland, Ron Simons, Diana DiMenna, Samira Wiley, Sheryl Lee Ralph, The Shubert Organization and The Nederlander Organization

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