Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies
Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm
- “So you don’t want to be a vet any more?”
- “What do you want to be?”
Even though “Laugh” signs light up to prompt us as an audience to take this as a joke, there is mostly silence as the conversation between the two boys, both African-American, sinks in. One -- the son of a single mom holding down two jobs -- is Baltimore street-smart in looks and speech, proudly wearing his sparkling red Dorothies on this feet and his required hoodie over his head. The other is the preppy (ok, actually nerdy), adopted son of upper middle-class white parents who lives in Achievement Heights and who calls his new friend’s shoes, “sneakers.” The former fears his new friend is too “white” and has taken on the mission to teach the latter “how to be black,” going so far as to compose a book of rules for him entitled “Being Black for Dummies.”
Custom Made Theatre presents the West Coast premiere of Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm’s edgy, funny, and timely play, Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies. Under the adept, full-speed-ahead direction of Lisa Marie Rollins, the Custom production should come with a warning to fasten your seatbelt and be ready for a riotous ride that will send you colliding into widely held but rarely discussed stereotypes while also being bombarded continuously with various forms and uses of the ‘n-word.’ Funny throughout but often causing audience members discomfort knowing when and if to laugh, the play discloses and demonstrates hilarious ‘secrets’ about being a black teen in the big city. Mr. Chisholm’s smart script also reveals one scary secret about being a black male teen in today’s America whose blatant truth cannot be easily ignored – even by an African-American youth going to an all-White prep school who uses the King’s English as he discusses his intellectual hero, Frederick Nietzsche.
Marquis meets Tru in a holding cell after being picked up by a tough-acting, black cop named Borzoi for ‘Trayvonning’ in a cemetery one night with two of his white classmates (that is, sprawling on the ground as if dead, imitating Trayvon Martin’s much-TV-aired picture). This practice and the subsequent social media pictures is evidently a favorite pastime among him and his white friends (along with one-knee ‘Tebowing’ and flat-face-on-ground ‘planking’). By the way, Marquis’ white friends in their prep-school ties and jackets of course got away, largely ignored by the cop who arrested him.
|Jesse Franklin, Jessica Risco & Tre'Vonne Bell|
Both Tre’Vonne Bell and Jesse Vaughn are nothing short of outstanding in their respective portrayals as Tru and Marquis. Mr. Bell’s Tru employees a number of facial expressions and body poses to convey clearly his shocked disbelief and yet true fascination with this friend whom he deems black in skin color only. Mr. Vaughn’s Marquis, on the other hand, is squeaky clean and naïve with a grin that lights up his entire personality and with a disbelieving, skeptical frown that cannot understand why this Tru thinks he is too white and not black enough. Both boys are also just boys in their horsing around, talk about girls and getting it on with them, and their passionate and “I know I am right” stands as they have fun arguing. And both share a connection that they cannot shed, no matter what – being a target of suspicion for just being black and male.
|Rebecca Hodges, Ari Lagomarsino & Delaney Corbitt|
|Peter Alexander & Ari Lagomarsino|
Camera projections by Sarah Phykitt are in themselves a shocking and symbolic reminder of the scrutiny that young black men face every day. The scenic design of Celeste Martore is spartan but satisfactory for the story’s unfolding. Maggie Whitaker’s costume design is a storyline of its own. Everyone from Marquis’ mom to the teens to the policeman (who roams menacingly the audience aisles all during the play) is given comic yet telling definitions by how they are dress by Ms. Whitaker.
As powerfully compelling and thought-provoking as the play is with an ending effect that is numbing in a somewhat sickening way, there are some devices that do not work so well along the way. Some scenes replay several times in different versions for reasons that, at least for me, are not obvious as to why. There are also a number of times when Nietsche’s beliefs about Greek culture and philosophy come to life in the dreams of Marquis as Apollo and Dionysus. These side-trips somewhat work but also are distracting and a bit silly in the way staged.
For me, the power of Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies is in the interactions of the teens of the play and the realities that confront them whenever they step outside the protection of their own bedrooms. Congratulations to Custom Made Theatre for daring to stage this funny yet uncomfortable play that demands follow-up thought and discussion. Exiting, I was left one with particular image of hooded boys, their backs to us with arms raised, that will likely not fade from my memory for a long, long time.
Rating: 4 E
Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies continues in an extended run through April 7, 2018 at Custom Made Theatre Company, 533 Sutter Street, San Francisco. Tickets are available online at www.custommade.org or by calling 415-789-2682 (CMTC).
Photo Credits: Jay Yamada