In today’s political climate, discussions of race and privilege between those with opposing views have become near to impossible. Our battles of conflicting perspectives, opinions, and impassioned causes have created fissures in our social structure that seem to deepen every day with no means of mending. For this reason, it is fitting that Mosaic Theater Company has chosen to remount their Helen Hayes Nominated production of Hooded, Or Being Black for Dummies.
The title alone gives a glimpse into the complex substance of the play, written by Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm. The show is a constant fluctuation of subtle comedy, clarity, political commentary, tragedy, and biting wit. The play is centered around Tru, played by Jeremy Keith Hunter, and Marquis, played by Keith Royal Smith, two young black men from different worlds whose paths cross in a holding cell. They are both being wrongfully held and exchange stories of how they got arrested, which Tru ultimately sums up as “Being while black.”
The script deals with stereotypes, social stigmas, and the subtleties of racism that have become so ingrained in our society’s basic language and behavior that many people fail to recognize it. Tru and Marquis are themselves stereotypes. Tru is a streetwise kid from the inner city, while Marquis is a prep school student who has “lost his Blackness.”
On the flip side is Marni Penning as Debra, Marquis’ white, adoptive mother. Penning plays the caricature of a well-meaning advocate, fighting to set right the social injustices black-youth endure. But she is completely ignorant of her own racism. Debra offers to take Tru in and get him into the prep school with Marquis. While the offer comes from a desire to do good, Debra makes broad assumptions that Tru is being raised by a single mom, who can barely make it on her own and neglects her motherly duties. Her blind ignorance of the condescension her assumptions imply is simultaneously amusing and shocking, which follows the flavor of the entire show.
At Marquis’ school, we meet his typical white, jock friends, Hunter (Dylan Morrison Meyers) and Fielder (Josh Adams), and the standard flock of white girls, Clementine (Madeline Joey Rose), Meadow (Emma Loughran), and Prairie (Marni Penning). Tru shows up, having decided to take Marquis under his wing and uncover his suppressed “blackness.”
Hunter and Smith, as Tru and Marquis, own their parts and the dialogue between the two flows perfectly. The characters are in a constant debate about the definition of “blackness.” Marquis believes that because he IS black, how he acts can be called “acting black.” But Tru sees a brother in need of guidance and writes the manual “Being Black for Dummies” for Marquis to study and recapture who (Tru believes) he is supposed to be.
Meyers as Hunter is a white boy with black-envy. He sees Tru as cool and takes the manual, in hopes of making himself cool by learning to be black. Meyers is outstanding in this scene. The absurdity of his attempts creates a good deal of comedy. Loughran’s character Meadow is smitten with Hunter and mistakes his different behavior as role-playing. But the scene takes a dark turn when Hunter comes upon the very real, internal conflict of who he is: Where does his societal persona end, and his true-self begin?
Philosophy comes into the dialogue quite often in the script. Tru and Marquis each have their own sources of inspiration, Tupac and Nietzche, and discover that the very different men were saying virtually the same thing, in their own way: the subject of one’s true-self, what that means, and how that affects your place in the world.
The play creates a perpetual state of duplicity for the audience. Each line and movement serves dual purposes to highlight a flaw and laugh at its absurdity, in various forms and themes, but all the while addressing the topic of being black in America.
The technical design for the show is one fluid body. The style of the show is atypical and Director Serge Seiden has done a phenomenal job creating a piece that is so complete and precise that it feels more like you’re watching a movie.
The set, designed by Ethan Sinnott, matches the multi-dimensional feel of the show. Two large units rotate, fold, and unfold to reveal a holding cell, a bedroom, or courtyard. Sound design by David Lamont and lighting design by Brittany Shemuga make the transitions between scenes feel like brief musical interludes, accentuating the tone and pace of the production.
At the beginning of the show, Officer Borzoi (Frederick Strother) states that all cell phones should be left on and any calls answered because “this story is unimportant.” More pointedly though, he calls attention to a LAUGH sign suspended above the stage. Strother instructs the audience to laugh whenever the sign is lit. And to never laugh, when it is not. Strother brandishes his baton any time the audience laughs out of place, which is often, highlighting the complicated ways in which our society interprets race humor and observational comedy that often teeters on the edge of racism. There is a very fine line, and the line is not straight.
Hooded, Or Being Black for Dummies is a comedy for sure, but it is also an awakening. A series of “Aha” moments and, at times, a well-deserved smack in the face. In the program, Director Serge Seiden perfectly describes the sensation the show creates: “The metaphor that comes to mind is a persistent midnight car alarm that you’re shocked to find you’ve been sleeping right through.”
Mosaic Theater Company has an amazing production. The world of the story that the cast and creative team present is fully imagined and engaging. The show deserves every accolade it has earned.
Running Time: Approximately one hour and 40 minutes, with no intermission.
Hooded, Or Being Black for Dummies plays through June 3, 2018, at the Atlas Performing Arts Center – 1333 H Street NE, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 399-7993 ext. 2, or purchase them online.