The busy streets of Brooklyn provide the background to Keenan Scott II’s “Thoughts of a Colored Man,” but firmly seizing the foreground are the seven captivating actors who bring to life the dreams, fears, memories, hopes and, yes, all-encompassing thoughts of Black men, both archetypal and piercingly specific, as they move through a single fall day. Written in a mixture of styles — monologues and dialogues, rhymed poetry, song and traditional staged dramatic scenes — the play, at the Golden Theatre, serves up a kaleidoscopic if occasionally didactic portrait of Black men’s lives as they are lived today in the city.
The characters are, somewhat schematically, each given a metaphoric name — Love, Happiness, Wisdom, Lust, Passion, Depression and Anger — although they do not address one another as such and we only really know who’s who when they identify themselves as the play ends. But while Scott may emphasize through each character a particular attitude or an emotion, each man contains all of the aforementioned elements to some degree; no one is a glaring billboard for a single feeling or idea.
The show opens in the early hours of the morning with men representing two starkly different demographics: Tristan Mack Wilds, who gives a performance simmering with palpable resentment, describes the trials of living in one of the rougher sections of the neighborhood: “Every time I step into the hallway, I see the same tiles they use in prisons, and the graffiti written on ’em lets you know whose territory you in. We don’t dare use the elevator, ’cause if you get stuck ain’t no one coming.”
Describing his life nearby, but on what might almost be another planet, Bryan Terrell Clark, who plays a financier, speaks with a satisfaction that is almost sensual of his new home. He makes his condo sound like a paradisiacal resort: “No sand,” he jokes, “but there’s an island in my kitchen.” Although sections of the play are, as mentioned, rendered directly as poetry, Scott’s writing throughout often has a lyrical eloquence that never seems imposed on the characters, but flows directly from their reflections upon or descriptions of their experience.
The sleek set design, by Robert Brill, consists of a giant digital billboard which flashes images from the gentrifying part of Brooklyn in which the show is set. The costumes, by Toni-Leslie James and Devario D. Simmons, help bring some pop to the proceedings with their sharp emphasis on just black, white and red.
One of the liveliest presences is Forrest McClendon, who portrays with biting humor a man working at a Whole Foods store. Addressing the audience directly (as the characters often do), he describes his daily frustrations — double shifts, cranky customers, condescending managers: “Sometimes I feel like these aisles are the fields and these condiments and cereal boxes are the cotton and they sure do gots me picking,” he says. Much later, we learn that his admonition to the audience to be nice to the workers, because “you could be talking to a genius … you could be talking to me,” isn’t mere braggadocio. An encounter between the grocery worker and Clark reveals, movingly, how early experience — a family life that is stable and supportive versus chaotic and nomadic — can radically alter the chances of success for Black men of similar gifts.
The play’s two youngest characters are longtime best friends who bonded in church, where Dyllon Burnside’s character found a home and, through Da’Vinchi’s character’s family, some grounding in an unstable world (“I never knew where my parents went,” Burnside tells us, with a concision that quietly scorches). But they are comically contrasted in their attitudes toward women and sex: Da’Vinchi’s cocky character, played with strutting good humor, is always on the prowl and dedicated to scoring — particularly with white women (a funny passage has him explaining the difference between a “Becky” and a “Karen”). Burnside’s more soft-spoken character, whom he imbues with a dreamy sensitivity, sees women as exotic creatures to be worshiped in the poetry he spins out.
The only occasion on which all the characters interact is a scene set in a local barbershop, a well-known symbol of the communal ties that bind together Black communities across America. The shop is run by Esau Pritchett’s older character; Wilds’s character also cuts hair there. Pritchett presides with a grave dignity over his establishment (his is the only character who trails a whiff of idealized sanctity behind him), insisting that anyone who violates his ban on bad language put money in a jar. A rise in the tension in the room arrives when Da’Vinchi’s character tosses out a casual gay slur (then is forced to pay up), as Clark’s character bristles uncomfortably; he’s gay, but in this atmosphere feels he has to keep this fact to himself.
The final character is a teacher, played with quiet intensity by Luke James. His character embraces his roles as a mentor (as does Wilds’s character, who informally coaches basketball and almost made the grade professionally), with James saying, “For the ones that don’t come from great homes I’m like a parent to ’em.” He laments that, as the neighborhood changes, the street wisdom that used to be passed down from older generations to younger is slowly evaporating.
Scott and his director, Steve H. Broadnax III, might profitably have trimmed some scenes and monologues, which occasionally begin to feel like miniature lectures or extended debates about various subjects, ranging from the fallout of growing up without a father to the lack of opportunity for Black men growing up in poverty to the mixed blessings of gentrification.
Even an initially comic scene that finds many of the characters lining up to buy the latest Michael Jordan sneakers release becomes a little preachy-speechy, when one character says, “When we gonna realize our buying power, instead of latching onto minuscule items that give us a false sense of wealth?” It is during moments like these that the play’s running time of an intermissionless two hours begins to feel overextended. (With its opening accelerated by a couple of weeks, the play probably lost crucial time to sharpen its focus during previews.)
But while one may acknowledge its incidental flaws, the cumulative power of “Thoughts of a Colored Man” is what remains with you after the curtain falls. “But you don’t hear us though!” is the collective refrain all but shouted in the play’s final moments. At least for the play’s duration and probably for long after, audiences encountering Scott’s richly human characters will not only hear them, but see them and feel with them, too.
“Thoughts of a Colored Man” opened at the Golden Theatre on Oct. 13, 2021.
Review photo: Julieta Cervantes.
Creative: Written by Keenan Scott II; Music by Te’La and Brother Kamau; Directed by Steve H. Broadnax III; Scenic Design by Robert Brill; Costume Design by Toni-Leslie James and Devario Simmons; Lighting Design by Ryan O’Gara; Sound Design by Mikaal Sulaiman; Projection Design by Sven Ortel.
Producers: Brian Moreland, Ron Simons, Diana DiMenna, Kandi Burruss, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Samira Wiley, Hunter Arnold, Four Thoughts Productions, Dale A. Mott, Winkler/Cohen/Fineman, Valencia Yearwood, Laura Z. Barket, Be Forward Productions, David J. and Linda A. Cornfield, Buzzy Geduld, Arlan Hamilton, Erik A. King, James L. Nederlander, Gabrielle Palitz, PlankFedermanWorlofsky Productions, Jana Shea, The Shubert Organization, Deroy/Roberston/Adler and Rick Miramontez.
Cast: Dyllón Burnside, Bryan Terrell Clark, Da’Vinchi, Luke James, Forrest McClendon, Esau Pritchett and Tristan Mack Wilds.