Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Thoughts of a Colored Man (Broadway)

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Seven African American men gather in a Brooklyn neighborhood, each with a face but devoid of a name, only known via the fundamental human quality or character flaw that they embody. Each and every one is given the chance to take center stage to talk about his life being black in New York, sometimes in monologues, at times in tandem with another. Love (Dyllón Burnside) sings about his appreciation for a certain unnamed person. Happiness (Bryan Terrell Clark) defends himself from the labels that society is forcing upon him being gay and black in a gentrified neighborhood. Lust (Bjorn Dupaty) talks about his sexual exploits and their respective complications. Anger (Tristan Mack Wilds) preaches about the inhumane treatment of athletic scholars and how they are treated more like commodities rather than people. Depression (Forrest McClendon) bemoans his once bright future at MIT which he chose to let go as a form of familial sacrifice. Wisdom (Esau Pritchett) anticipates being a grandfather while also serving as an elderly beacon for the community. Passion (Luke James) is both excited and terrified of his impending fatherhood.

As an outsider this play has been very insightful for me, and I felt like an acquaintance paying these characters a visit and being given a peek into their daily lives as they deal with everyday challenges on top of the systemic racism that they are subjected to on a regular basis. Somehow, I felt a bit out of place in an audience predominantly comprised of African Americans but watching them laugh and cheer as they enjoy the play in its two-hour entirety has been an experience in itself, me becoming a firsthand witness of their acknowledgment that this is THEIR story, and we are finally seeing it onstage.

With the consistent clamor for more diversity on Broadway, this play couldn’t have come at a more opportune time. Like Trouble in Mind, this is a good material regarding race dynamics in New York, although that play is a more inside look at the industry itself. It’s meta like that. Thoughts of a Colored Man is more of an introspection of sorts, a collection of stories that at first might seem disjointed and have nothing in common, but all come together in the end to form one coherent narrative.

Despite the subject matter being very specific, there are still some universal themes tackled to which many can relate. Passion’s fatherhood subplot, for instance, can be relevant to anybody who will be a first-time father soon, while Depression’s fate is not that totally detached from the experience of many when it comes to lofty ambitions, almost achieving them, and then having to hold back for whatever reason you might have. You do not have to be African American to be able to know these well.

And then there are those that are specific to the demographic. Anger’s preaching is something not everyone will be able to relate to depending on the level of privilege you are currently enjoying in life. It is also the same case for Happiness’ dilemma when it comes to being boxed in a label and expected by society to stay in that box so they can better understand you by their own terms. When he thinks out loud about not being black enough or being too much, it can hit close to home for those who have grown up straddling two different cultures or paradigms yet not being totally accepted in either.

Overall, Thoughts of a Colored Man has a lot to offer in both form and substance. The core arguments we think we already know well, but could use a bit of a refresher or a different perspective from time to time. The form, on the other hand, is a variety that many would enjoy. You have song, spoken word, monologue. While the bottom line of each character’s arguments might be more or less the same, it is in the presentation thereof that they differ and become more creative.

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