The In-Person Experience: Broadway’s Thoughts of a Colored Man
The lineup takes to the stage, with a nod to the audience, and another to the bold word that hangs overhead like a highway billboard in black and white selling an idea and a thought. The first item spoken is a song sung so beautifully that it rips into your soul and takes you by the hand (music and lyrics by Te’La and Kamauu Keenan Scott II). “Let me into heaven” and you are in, no matter where we’re from. The theatrical air is thick with possibility and an epic movement forward, for the question that hangs in the air inside the Golden Theatre is basically “What does it mean to be a Colored Man in America today?” And the answer that comes, deep from inside the heart of this new play, Thoughts of a Colored Man by the Queens-native playwright, Keenan Scott II (#WhileWeBreathe), is as broad and diverse as one could hope for. It sings and stomps its way in. From the captivating and engrossing vignettes presented here by these seven nameless Black men, this intense one-act play delivers a thesis, that there are just as many colors to a black man as there are emotional layers, and we are here to see and feel as many as we can take in.
Following the lives of these unique men, portrayed most authentically by a talented cast of seven, the play finds poetry in the everyday, and a richness in the community that fills in those blank spaces between the bold letters that stand so strongly behind them. All of this is facilitated by the artful crew: scenic designer Robert Brill (Broadway’s Ain’t Too Proud; Jesus Christ Superstar), costume designers Toni-Leslie James (Broadway’s Bernhardt/Hamlet) and Devario D. Simmons (AMC’s “Turn“), lighting designer Ryan O’Gara (Cirque/Germany’s Paramour), sound designer Mikaal Sulaiman (NYTW’s Sanctuary City), and projection designer Sven Ortel (Broadway’s Newsies). Directed with a swift focused heart by Steve H. Broadnax III (Signature’s The Hot Wing King), the poet stands strong and sings out, bringing change to Broadway with ever phrase, telling proverbs that fly, and giving a solid serman to the masses from the neighborhood barbershop. Each moments registers strong, authentic, and deep, connecting to the audience through its wisdom and intelligence. Tragedy and comedy find their space in the Brooklyn earth so they may grow and shine, giving over the stage to the seven anonymous Black men who, only later, are given an emotional name that drives home the piece and the posture. Each one of the fine actors on that stage; Da’Vinchi (Amazon’s “The Boys“) as Lust; Luke James (HBO’s “Insecure“) as Passion; Tristan Mack Wilds (“The Secret Life of Bees“) as Anger; Bryan Terrell Clark (Broadway’s Motown) as Happiness; Forrest McClendon (Broadway/London’s The Scottsboro Boys) as Depression; and especially the epic Esau Pritchett (Fox’s “Prodigal Son“) as Wisdom and the stunning Dyllón Burnside (FX’s “Pose“) as Love; find their moment of true connection, and emotional engagement without force or over-indulgence.
Trying hard to make sense of a dangerous unfair world, one that not only doesn’t understand Black men, but fears them, Thoughts of a Black Man rides steady on a difficult road, engaging and communicating their truth and frustration without overdoing the platform and process. There is a tight rope to walk, one that I can only begin to understand from my privileged seat in the audience. But the connections are made, within my heart and soul, and with all those around me (especially that young POC sitting next to me who was emotionally shredded, drenched in her own tears by the end). As each feel their way into aspects of the whole, there are no slips to be seen on that tight rope, only powerful balancing acts when real-world frustrations find the air to breath inside of the humor and love presented. McClendon shines in his Depression/MIT monologue, talking to a happy well-presented Clark while working away for minimum wage at a Whole Foods. It and other like moments sing in the poetry of the words spoken, filled with grief and struggle, right alongside confusion and anger. The dignity, and that rage, find their target, right there next to disappointment, death, and survival.
The deep voice of Pritchett inside Wilson’s barber shop finds respect and balance while delivering the group’s vastness and sense of community. Gentrification, poverty, and a surprise dose of homophobia and acceptance are served up from a strong grounded presence that the play quickly establishes. The awkwardness of Clark’s character as a well-off Black Gay man, new to the neighborhood, is touching and comic, as he sits in that shop waiting for a cut while engaging but dodging complicated concepts of Blackness, sexuality, and gentrification. Once again, as in the whole, the tight rope walker doesn’t falter or fall. At moments we worry about where he might trip himself up; maybe in the overwhelming knowledge of just how many topics need to be covered, but as the play powers itself to the end with a bang, Thoughts of a Black Man only finds its truth and substance in the overwhelming narrative.