Saturday, October 30, 2021

11. THOUGHTS OF A COLORED MAN (seen October 30, 2021)

Luke James, Esau Pritchett, Da'Vinchi, Forrest McClendon, Dyllón Burnside, Tristan Mack Wilds, Bryan Terrell Clark. All photos: Julieta Cervantes.

If one of the purposes of theatre can be said to be communion, the sense of shared emotional and intellectual response to an event, then the experience of watching Thoughts of a Colored Man certainly fits the description. Keenan Scott II’s new play, originally done by Syracuse Stage in 2019, had its Broadway opening delayed when the pandemic broke out. It may not achieve all the checkoffs one associates with first-class traditional playwriting, but as a dramatic—or even semi-dramatic—exercise, it creates a sense of warm engagement that keeps on giving through most of its ninety uninterrupted minutes at the John Golden Theatre.

Tristan Mack Wilds, Dyllón Burnside, Forrest McClendon, Da'Vinchi.

Thoughts of a Colored Man combines poetry, drama, music (limited but effective), and comedy in a series of scenes, songs, and monologues that purport to share things that African-American men have on their minds. As others have noted, it’s broadly reminiscent of Ntzoke Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow is Enuf. Not until the end do we learn the names of its thus far anonymous men, and they’re all allegorical: Love (Dyllón Burnside), Happiness (Bryan Tererell Clark), Lust (Da’Vinchi), Passion (Luke James), Depression (Forrest McClendon), Wisdom (Esau Pritchett), and Anger (Tristan Mack Wilds).

Da'Vinchi, Dyllón Burnside.

Those names are absolutes that make the men seem less dimensional than what we actually see. While Wisdom, for example, definitely could be ascribed to the patriarchal Nigerian-American who runs Joe’s Barber Shop (and, therefore, could simply be called Joe), he also displays aspects of the other concepts, as do his fellow characters. Most share traits of love, anger, passion, depression, and happiness, although lust is perhaps not so much in evidence, even in the character who gets the name.

Luke James, Esau Pritchett, Da'Vinchi, Dyllón Burnside, Tristan Mack Wilds, Forrest McClendon.

Regardless, the play serves as a smorgasbord of writing styles, from hip-hop rhymes to barbershop sitcom to poetic lyricism, showing Scott’s verbal skills and humanistic nature, allowing his characters to express a range of mostly familiar tropes about being Black. Or, more specifically, being a Black man living in a largely Black neighborhood, like Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant.

Luke James.

Familiar as the issues are, it’s the often humorous and/or insightful way they’re dramatized, discussed, or described that keeps us engaged, creating that shared feeling of communion. At the Saturday matinee I attended, the audience consisted largely of people of color. There was an electric connection between what was happening on stage and how it was being received in the house, with murmurs of “uh-huh,” “mmm,” “that’s right,” and other signs of approbation.

Da'Vinchi, Dyllón Burnside.

Vividly staged by Steve H. Broadnax III, the scenes roll forth on Robert Brill’s spare set dominated by a slightly elevated, bench-like metal platform running from one side to the other. It’s brilliantly lit by Ryan O’Gara, and backed by Sven Ortel’s projections of local cityscapes lightly overlaid by the word “COLORED.” Toni-Leslie James and Devario D. Simmons provide excellent urban costumes using red, gray, black, and white; Mikaal Sulaiman’s complex sound design is an exceptional adjunct to the atmosphere; and the music and lyrics of Te’la and Kamauu, as well as playwright Scott, are welcome ingredients.

A central dramatic context tying everyone together is a barbershop, apparently as much an iconic locale in the Black community as the church; in fact, its pastor-like proprietor is as much a curator of his customers' hearts and souls (he even keeps a "swear jar" to prevent cussing) as he is of their head and facial hair. This is especially palpable in Mr. Pritchett's performance, his presence and voice being as richly charismatic as any megachurch preacher’s. The characters are sufficiently distinct from one another, and each actor gets multiple chances to glow. Some characters may be irritated enough by life’s shittiness to instigate quarrels but they come down more on the side of saintliness than its opposite. Only when a brief collage about Black on Black violence is presented late in the play does that particular issue make its presence known.

Among the prominent themes are Black consumerism as represented by the desire for Air Jordan sneakers; the exploitative way that colleges overlook the “student” part of their “student-athletes”; the problems represented by Black fatherhood; the sacrifice young men make for the sake of needy family members; the gentrification of Black neighborhoods; the dimensions of Black masculinity, not to mention homophobia; identity issues faced by the Black middle class; poverty (three guys even do a comic riff on whose childhood was poorer), and so on.

There’s little new here, or particularly provocative, and much of it has an undeniable air of preachiness bordering on overstatement. While there’s no plot to speak of, a few things happen, friendships emerge, and minor conflicts are resolved. Nonetheless, apart from there being too many set pieces delivered via direct address rather than in dramatic conversation, the play manages to hold your interest.

Luke James, Esau Pritchett, Da'Vinchi, Forrest McClendon, Dyllón Burnside, Tristan Mack Wilds, Bryan Terrell Clark.

Thoughts of a Colored Man receives outstanding support from a dynamic cast that deserves to be a contender for any awards given for the season’s best ensemble. The actors achieve a true communion among themselves on the John Golden’s stage, but it’s the one they create for the audience that makes their work memorable.

Thoughts of a Colored Man

John Golden Theatre

252 W. 45th Street, NYC

Open run


Thursday, October 28, 2021

Monday, October 18, 2021

7. THE LEHMAN TRILOGY (seen on October 16, 2021)

 "Money Makes the World Go Round, The World Go Round . . . "

For my review of The Lehman Trilogy please click on THEATER PIZZAZZ.

Thursday, October 14, 2021

6. CHICKEN AND BISCUITS (seen October 13, 2021)

"Hold the Potatoes"

Norm Lewis, Cleo King. (Photos: Emilio Madrid.)
If Chicken and Biscuits, Douglas Lyons’s new play at the Circle in the Square, were a potato, it would make a potential side dish for the food mentioned in the title. After all, it mashes together a panoply of different styles, including family comedy, zany farce, domestic melodrama, and even revivalist singing, smothering them in heavy acting gravy. Sadly, these mashed methods aren’t so easy to swallow.

Michael Urie, Devere Rogers.

Originally seen in 2020 at the Queens Theatre, Queens, NY, Chicken and Biscuits is a raucous funeral comedy about an African-American family. Some theatregoers were in stitches; others, myself included, squirmed in their britches.  

Aigner Mizzelle, Ebony Marshall-Oliver, Alana Raquel Bowers.

Friendly, warmhearted, and schmaltzy, the play—vigorously staged by Zhailon Levingston—never makes up its mind as to just what it wants to be. It spends the first half of its intermissionless 110 minutes establishing its clichéd characters with broadly painted strokes before anything one might call an “inciting incident” occurs. At that point, it suddenly introduces a new character whose catalytic presence blows the situation sky high before the pieces manage to fall back to earth in neatly packaged, feel-good resolutions.

Cleo King (like many in the cast, making an impressive Broadway debut) and the always reliable Norm Lewis (Broadway’s first African-American Phantom in Phantom of the Opera) play the middle-aged matriarch Baneatta Mabry and her preacher husband Reginald. When we first see this lovingly bantering couple they’re preparing to attend the funeral of Baneatta’s preacher father, Bernard Jenkins. Reggie has succeeded to his father-in-law’s position at St. Luke’s church in New Haven, CT, where the funeral is about to take place.

Accordingly, Lawrence E. Moten III’s set—brightly lit by Adam Honoré—turns the Circle’s three-quarters round configuration into a church interior, including stained-glass images on the surrounding walls, with movable pews that help divide the space into multiple locales. The churchy atmosphere is enhanced by Dede Ayite’s lively costumes, including the ladies’ memorable millinery.

As per the formula for funeral plays, film, and TV shows (like, for example, 2007’s Death at a Funeral, also about a Black family), those most closely associated with the deceased gather closely together to say their farewells. Volatile family chemicals in such proximity can be explosive, of course; as expected, the expected detonation eventually occurs.

Among the array of heightened characters is Baneatta’s sass-spouting, bra-busting sister, Beverly (Ebony Marshall Oliver, a force of nature). A fitter-than-a-fiddle peacock in black spikes, sequined dress, and jacket, she colors her multi-patterned hair a dazzling turquoise (and other eye-catching hues). We soon see the tension between the self-consciously outrageous Beverly—who pushes the envelope the way her bra pushes up her puppies (as she calls them)—and her upright church lady sister, indignant about Beverly flaunting her “titties” so openly. This becomes one of several running jokes.

The sibling conflict between Beverly and Baneatta is balanced by the discomfort felt by Baneatta’s gay actor son, Kenny (Devere Rogers), about coming out to his family. (Haven’t we seen this play before?) This, despite Kenny’s being there with his lover, Logan Leibowitz (Michael Urie, increasingly typecast as a needy gay guy), white and Jewish. In a particularly tired running joke, no one can properly remember the name Logan: Lamar, Loofah, and Lucas are among those proffered. Only the audience, perhaps, has any trouble with Baneatta or La’ Trice.

Ebony Marshall-Oliver, Michael Urie, Devere Rogers, Cleo King.

La' Trice (the ultra-animated Aigner Mizzelle) is Beverly’s fifteen-year-old daughter, an aspiring songstress-song writer, as extreme in her own overstated teen fashionista way and manners as her flamboyant mom. Then there’s the Mabrys’ somewhat more subdued daughter, Simone (the grounded Alana Raquel Bowers), Kenny’s sister, nursing her own private wounds, who objects to Kenny’s dalliance with a white man. Finally, we meet Brianna (NaTasha Yvette Williams, solid), the surprise visitor who finally gets the plot moving. I’ll avoid disclosing her connection, although it’s just another part of the formula.

Chicken and Biscuits takes pleasure in its own cartoonishness, sometimes even breaking the fourth wall to take the audience into its world (we’re presumed, when necessary, to be part of the funeral attendees). This wouldn’t be so bad if the material were funnier, or if the acting—polished as the performers are—weren’t trying so hard to make us laugh. For farce to work, you need more than energy and sheer determination. You have to be credible, and that, despite the obvious talent present, doesn’t happen enough in Chicken and Biscuits.

Ebony Marshall-Oliver, Michael Urie, Devere Rogers.

The play does sometimes veer, oddly, into the realm of believability. For instance, most of the characters are asked to deliver a three-minute eulogy of the departed. For perhaps fifteen minutes you hear just the kind of sincere memories, with occasional comic flavoring, as you’d be likely to encounter at any real-life service. The dramatic action freezes and we listen as if there really was a corpse in the onstage coffin. But when the otherwise sober preacher speak-sings his piece (Norm Lewis has a Broadway voice, of course), the play shifts into another, much wilder realm, out of sync with what’s just transpired. And when Brianna explains who she is, things get even crazier.

Alana Raquel Bowers, Aigner Mizzelle.

Sibling rivalries, escapes from the gay closet, parental worries, religious aspirations, Black women’s empowerment, and inter-racial humor (don’t forget that very white guy’s presence) are appropriate concerns, even if meant more for laughs than social change; they all get their moments—both satirical and serious—in the spotlight. But they're not enough to make this a satisfying theatrical meal.

Cleo King, Ebony Marshall-Oliver, NaTasha Yvette Williams.

You can mash, fry, boil, and bake Chicken and Biscuits but it still doesn’t make a very good play.

Cleo King and the cast of Chicken and Biscuits.

Chicken and Biscuits

Circle in the Square

1633 Broadway, NYC (Fiftieth Street)

Through January 2, 2022







Tuesday, October 12, 2021

5. SOUTH PACIFIC (seen October 10, 2021)

 "Most People Long for Another Island"

For my review of South Pacific please click on Theater Life.

Thursday, October 7, 2021