BWW Review: Mosaic Theatre's HOODED, OR BEING BLACK FOR DUMMIES a Compelling Journey of Identity
Identity-what's it for? Is there something we're supposed to be, or can we simply be left to find out for ourselves? What if people mistake you, because of your outward appearance? What effect should they have on who you really are? And what if society, from the inertia of its own prejudices, refuses to let you be yourself?
I start with these questions because Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm's new play Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies, receiving its world premiere with Mosaic Theatre Company, examines the dangers of identity, prejudice and identity politics from a variety of angles. By turns hilarious and stone-cold sober, it follows the trajectory of two young black men who meet - where else? - in a holding cell at a Baltimore police station.
Well, sort of. Chisholm actually begins the show with their arresting officer, Borzoi - the deadpan, commanding Frederick Strother-walking past the cell and lecturing the audience about how insignificant the two young men are. Instead, Borzoi extols the virtues of the massive electric "LAUGH" sign hung over the stage and orders you to laugh on cue; true to form, the sign lights up with its own laugh track with some frequency. But it's a frequency that becomes increasingly squirm-worthy, as the "jokes" veer from honest humor to mean-spirited abuse. A nod (perhaps) to Spike Lee's Bamboozled, the concept of forced laughter, and an audience complicit in the degradation of the characters onstage, is skillfully deployed; it succeeds admirably in getting thoroughly under your skin, regardless of its color.
Borzoi's two "suspects" seem, at first, to be polar opposites: on one side of the cell you have the prep-school nerd Marquis, whose adoptive white parents have provided him the sort of upbringing any wealthy power couple would. He reads Nietzsche, speaks the King's English, knows nothing of hip-hop, and clearly wouldn't last two seconds downtown. Then you have Tru, a complex young man from a single-parent household that is empty much of the time. Left entirely to his own devices, Tru seems more at home on the street than in the classroom, and is fully steeped in rap culture-as witnessed by his passion for Tupac Shakur. As each eyes the other, the question "what if?" arises; both seem equal in intelligence and potential, but only one of them has been given the opportunity to develop both. Their subsequent friendship, and Tru's tutelage of Marquis, forms the core of Hooded's story.
Keith L. Royal Smith gives us a hilariously geeky, naïve Marquis, and his awkwardness at everything from pop culture to girls is one of the great charms of this production. Jeremy Keith Hunter, meanwhile, gives a stand-out performance as Tru, a young man of talent, whose other life-had his circumstances at home been different-is clearly visible under the surface of slang and braggadocio.
Marquis' predicament is easily explained, once one meets his mother Debra; Jennifer Mendenhall gives us the ultimate nightmare of a helicopter mom, the righteous, self-anointed do-gooder whose concern for Marquis seems at once sincere but self-serving. White audiences of good intent will grit their teeth in spite of themselves, as Mendenhall races through the liberal pieties and lays bare their potential emptiness.
One of the more amusing sequences begins when Tru shows up uninvited at Marquis' prep school, and immediately ingratiates himself with Marquis' classmates Hunter (Dylan Morrison Myers) and Fielder (Josh Adams). Hunter, fascinated with Tru, quickly develops an obsession for the hip-hop lifestyle that this city boy seems to represent. And when Tru presents Marquis with a handbook (the "Being Black for Dummies" of the title), Hunter is the one who pilfers it. For all his posturing, it turns out Hunter hates his white identity so much that he thinks complete immersion in Tru's book will cure him; the resulting melt-down is horrifying to watch, and Myers is absolutely riveting.
No co-ed prep school is complete without adorable, snooty co-eds, and Chisholm creates a gaggle of girls who, although comfortable in their own skin, clearly have no idea how to deal with blackness of any variety, Marquis' or Tru's. Emma Lou Hébert's performance as Meadow begins as cloying and as annoying as any preppy you can imagine; but her relationship with Hunter deepens, and we are reminded that behind the stereotype are young women just as unsure of themselves as anyone. As Marquis' crush Clementine, Madeline Burrows offers a sympathetic portrayal of someone whose love is colorblind, or so she thinks. Chisholm wisely leaves it to you to decide whether she's sincere, or just fooling herself. (Mendenhall returns here, too, as Prairie, a reminder that the grown-ups could teach the kids a thing or two about adolescence).
Serge Seiden, assisted by Vaughn Ryan Midder, has done a masterful job of managing Chisholm's often-quirky script, which relies heavily on a "rewind" motif where a long sequence of scenes begins with the same opening line. Ethan Sinnott, meanwhile, has created an industrial, metallic neo-Constructivist set that revolves, opens and shuts, making good use of the Sprenger Theatre space. David Lamont Wilson's sound design, following the quirkiness of Chisholm's dramaturgy, varies from classical to hip-hop to sitcom.
Chisholm is a writer of great promise; his influences are many, and perhaps because he is at the beginning of his career they are more visible; a touch of Wedekind here, Sam Shepherd there perhaps, but that's just to name two. "Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies" is an unforgettable, complex study in identity that for all of its tricks and turns is one of the more psychologically, spiritually rich plays you are likely to see on the stage.
Production Photo: (L to R) Jeremy Keith Hunter as Tru, Dylan Morrison Myers as Hunter, and Keith L. Royal Smith as Marquis. Photo by Stan Barouh.
Running Time: 100 minutes without Intermission.
Hooded runs January 25-February 19 at the Atlas Performing Arts center, 1333 H Street NE, Washington, D.C. For tickets, visit http://www.mosaictheater.org/ or call the Atlas box office at 202-399-7993.