A hope for the future arrives in the final moments of “Thoughts of a Colored Man,” a dutiful and expansive cataloguing of its title subject by Keenan Scott II. “I can’t wait for the day when my skin isn’t a novelty,” a man known as Happiness, played by Bryan Terrell Clark, tells the audience. It’s as much a self-conscious commentary on the playwright’s own project as on the broader experience of Black men in America.
That’s the sprawling, diffuse subject that Scott ambitiously inventories here, in a series of vignettes, run-ins and soliloquies set in a gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood over the course of a single day. Under the able direction of Steve H. Broadnax III, Scott’s poetic distillations gleam with insights and vulnerabilities of heart and mind.
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The men refracted on stage embody elements suggested by the play’s title, like Anger (Tristan Mack Wilds) and Clark’s Happiness, who greet the dawn of a new day with determination, one resigned, the other hopeful. There’s Love (Dyllón Burnside of “Pose”) and Lust (Da’Vinchi), with their opposing strategies for wooing ladies at the bus stop. (Love: “While you stand on Venus and I’m on Mars, we’ll hold hands and look into each other’s eyes.” Lust: “I just wanna smash.”) Passion (Luke James) is a searching poet and father-to-be. Depression (Forrest McClendon) has sacrificed his dreams to filial duty, and Wisdom (Esau Pritchett) is the sage elder on the block.
Most of the men know each other from around the neighborhood (Fort Greene or nearby, for eyes trained on Sven Ortel’s projections), and Scott hangs the play’s chronology on quotidian happenstance: a morning jog, a midday work break, coaching after-school basketball. On a set by Robert Brill featuring a giant billboard as a kind of blank canvas, our primary encounters with each man come in the form of direct address, through which their backstories and resulting perspectives are mostly spelled out rather than illustrated.
Scott favors language — verse, rhythm, rhyme — over action, and the men expound on their interior lives more often into the middle distance than in dynamic relation to one another. A scene at Wisdom’s old-school barbershop gathers the guys in a rare group interaction, more toward the purpose of traversing a roadmap of pressing social issues — redlining, the tyrannies of Black consumerism, homophobia — than generating character-driven drama.
“Thoughts of a Colored Man” shares clear lineage with another restless and expressive probing of Black interiority and outward entrapment, Ntozake Shange’s 1975 “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf,” a revival of which is aiming for Broadway this spring. Like Shange, Scott wields poetry like a magnifying mirror, drawing attention where too little has historically been paid, and spinning those revelations loosely into narrative.
But where “For Colored Girls” assembles vivid and discrete portraits into a kind of cosmic ritual, Scott and Broadnax plant their kicks on the pavement, purveying a streetside take on the men’s daily lives and intersections. The result attempts an uneven sort of naturalism, as the men posit one purportedly universal truism after another, tracing the outlines of life in place of illuminating its substance. Scott’s mode of expositional storytelling can also grow to feel didactic, in a way that feels in conflict with efforts to ground the play in everyday reality.
The play seems to offer up its excavations for the dual benefit of viewers to whom they are unfamiliar (mostly white Broadway audiences) and those craving the glow of recognition (a hopefully growing number of Black theatergoers). Frequent and audible assent at a recent performance proved that it satiates a clear and present hunger.
“Thoughts of a Colored Man” joins a wave of new works by Black artists on Broadway this season; when it was previously presented at Syracuse Stage and Baltimore Center Stage in fall 2019, only one such play appeared on the Great White Way. In the intervening shutdown, a need for education in even the most rudimentary particulars of Black life has become painfully obvious.
But if the latest welcome influx of work by Black artists should prove anything, it’s challenging the notion that Black voices — and the experiences they express — are a novelty. “Thoughts of a Colored Man” lays essential foundations for embracing the humanity of its subjects, while at the same time longing for a world that obviates its existence.
“All we ever wanted was to be ourselves,” Depression concludes. “To live.” What’s devastating is that it needs to be said at all.
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