Review: 'Thoughts of a Colored Man' preaches to the choir

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Review: 'Thoughts of a Colored Man' preaches to the choir
From left, Luke James, Esau Pritchett, Da’Vinchi, Dyllon Burnside, Tristan Mack Wilds and Forrest McClendon in “Thoughts of a Colored Man,” in New York, Sept. 30, 2021. Keenan Scott II’s play, incorporating slam poetry, prose and songs, aspires to be a lyrical reckoning with Black life in America. Sara Krulwich/The New York Times.

by Maya Phillips

NEW YORK, NY.- Seven Black men step onto the stage in the opening of Keenan Scott II’s “Thoughts of a Colored Man.” Over the course of the play, each will reveal a personality and history, but not a name, though later they will introduce themselves as Love, Happiness, Wisdom, Lust, Passion, Depression and Anger. Wearing different combinations of black, gray and red, they stand staring at a hulking billboard that reads “COLORED” in declarative black caps.

One of them then asks the question that begins the play: “Who is the Colored Man?”

It’s a question that Scott’s Broadway debut, which opened Wednesday night at the John Golden Theater, doesn’t quite know how to answer. Incorporating slam poetry, prose and songs performed by its cast of seven, “Thoughts of a Colored Man,” which first premiered in 2019 at Syracuse Stage in a co-production with Baltimore Center Stage, aspires to be a lyrical reckoning with Black life in America, but only delivers a gussied-up string of straw-man lessons.

Set in present-day Brooklyn, amid the many symbols of gentrification (Citi Bike stations, Whole Foods and a Paris Baguette), “Thoughts” employs vignettes to check in with various characters, who are often grouped together. Though the show, directed by Steve H. Broadnax III, only runs for about 100 minutes, it takes us to a bus stop, a basketball court, a barbershop, a hospital and other locations, in a series of 18 snappy scenes.

The characters, ranging in age from late teens to mid-60s, have specific themes to illustrate: the elder Wisdom (Esau Pritchett) speaks about respect, history and ancestry; Anger (Tristan Mack Wilds) vents about the trappings of consumerism and the objectification of Black athletes; and Happiness (Bryan Terrell Clark) challenges notions about Black struggle and class.

But the question remains: “Who is the Colored Man?”

The framing of these characters as concepts seems to imply a larger metaphor about Blackness that never comes to fruition. Perhaps we’re meant to deduce that these men taken together make up an entire Black man, with all of his dimensions. Yet Scott’s script teeters between presenting fully drawn characters and firm personifications, ultimately failing at either.

“Thoughts” may be inspired by Ntozake Shange’s renowned choreopoem “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf,” in which seven unnamed women alternate among songs, dances, monologues and choral poems. It has a narrative continuity that Shange’s doesn’t, though to what end is unclear. So Passion (Luke James) talks Lust (Da’Vinchi) down after a barbershop argument, and Happiness has an awkward confrontation with Depression (Forrest McClendon) in a grocery store. The minute insights are clear, about class and masculinity. More broadly, though, what does “Thoughts” ultimately contribute to this long conversation about Blackness in America?

The play sits at the intersection of different avenues of Black life, from the bright retail worker who had to forgo a full scholarship to MIT to the gay gentrifier who was raised in the upper middle class. Despite being set in the present, the play feels removed from time; Scott doesn’t touch the Black Lives Matter protests or the institutional systems that hold Black men back. There are barely any mentions of how whiteness shapes the Black experience in America.

And Black women are almost entirely forgotten (except as victims, in one grossly sensationalized monologue by Lust, or objects of desire). The characters’ poems, which are awkwardly incorporated into scenes of regular dialogue about how to pick up women or which Jordans are the best, allow the men to describe and emote but not to advance any message. It all remains at surface level.

How does one design a stage for a show that wants to claim representations of Blackness without knowing what to say about it? Robert Brill’s stage design, low black scaffolding and that “COLORED” billboard, recalls Glenn Ligon’s 1990 “Untitled (I Feel Most Colored When I Am Thrown Against a Sharp White Background),” which was in turn inspired by Zora Neale Hurston’s famous quote. It doesn’t help with the show’s overdone approach. Even Ryan O’Gara’s lighting, which at one point dresses the whole theater in a stunning constellation of speckled lights, cannot elevate the language.

Dyllón Burnside has the toughest job. As Love, his spoken-word poetry is almost nonsensical. At one point, he says: “She was like the perfect use of assonance in just the right amount of lines. Her pupils looked lost, and I wanted to be the teacher that teaches them to love what they see.”

Broadnax’s direction exacerbates these performances of the poems, which abruptly occur as other characters are frozen. They move with the stilted stage cadence of a slam poem, with awkward breaks, including some after verbs and prepositions, just to hammer home the wordplay and rhyme.

Not everyone in the cast jives with this rhythm; Pritchett’s full-toned bass stumbles through the tempo. Though James’ Passion gets shortchanged with the character’s back story, he at least gets his own music; he shows off his stellar voice, even if for only a few bars scattered throughout the production.

Clark is funny as Happiness, tossing side glances, raised eyebrows and witty asides to the audience, providing some much-needed representation of a queer Black character, despite dipping from the well of gay clichés. Da’Vinchi, likewise, has his comic moments as a believably blunt and horny young man. When addressing Black toxic masculinity, primarily through Da’Vinchi’s Lust, the play is mostly inoffensive, if unremarkable.

I wish I could tell you that one character isn’t killed by the end. And yet, this is another way that “Thoughts” so obviously tries to convey the reality that so many of us already know to be true. In fact, some of us have lived it. We don’t need a random act of violence onstage to tell us that every day Black men are endangered in our society. We need nuanced characters, action and complex poetry and prose to tell our stories.

"Thoughts of a Colored Man"Through March 20 at the John Golden Theater, Manhattan; Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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