Friday, March 16, 2018

"Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies"

Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies
Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm

Tre'Vonne Bell & Jesse Vaughn
Two, mid-teen guys chat about their aspirations and dreams:
- “So you don’t want to be a vet any more?”
- “No.”
- “What do you want to be?”
- “Alive.”

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
Tru is in same cell as Marquis for “loitering” (enough said).  When Marquis’s white mom (a very blonde and hilariously ‘color-blind’ Jessica Risco) arrives, she quickly uses her social connections and ‘whiteness’ to get both boys released to her, excitedly convincing Tru to spend the night so that Marquis can finally have “a cultural friend.”  The boys begin to establish a friendship where ideas, clothes, and the required pushes and shoves are swapped and shared.  And, Marquis begins to learn ‘secrets’ about being black that he is not sure he wants or needs to learn but more and more feels compelled to do so.

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
Much of the play’s humor and also the playwright’s commentary on the majority society surrounding all African American kids come via the white classmates of Marquis at Achievement Heights Academy.  His buds, Fielder (Max Seijas) and Hunter (Peter Alexander), are ever-so-close to being caricatures of the cool guy concentrating on his hair and looks and the jock who is out to make it with one of the cheerleaders.  The girls carry telling names like Prairie (Delaney Corbitt), Meadow (Ari Lagomarsino), and Clementine (Rebecca Hodges) and are exaggerations of giddy, selfie-taking gals whose eyes are mostly on boys and on their own looks and rivalries.  Clementine does have the hots for Marquis (as does he for her), and her obvious naivite about him as an African American is both sweet and sad to watch.

Peter Alexander & Ari Lagomarsino
When Hunter (Peter Alexander) starts reading Tru’s instructional book on being black that Marquis has discarded, something inside him switches as he strives to take on all the black mannerisms, speech, and looks that Marquis largely refuses to consider.  Mr. Alexander gives an award-worthy performance that is difficult to watch while also eliciting much laughter.  His journey into his black self takes turns that unfortunately echo the underlying message of Mr. Chisholm’s play and the ‘secret’ about the young, black men he so much tries to emulate.

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 or by calling 415-789-2682 (CMTC).

Photo Credits:  Jay Yamada

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