“Brilliant” is barely adequate to describe Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies, which blurs the line between comedy and drama with the infinite precision, speed, and flash of a polished penny spinning on end. It’s funny, poignant, and remarkable in the way it marries pop culture, culture, and art to elevate a conversation to a place it should have reached long ago. At least, before “Trayvonning” was permissible as a “thing” akin to “planking” and “Tebowing.”
And that’s where it starts.
Marquis (Keith L. Royal Smith)—a young, black teenager—sits in a holding cell, having been nabbed by Officer Borzoi (Frederick Strother) under the pretense of trespassing in a cemetery with two friends—Hunter (Dylan Morrison Myers) and Fielder (Josh Adams)—who got away. He explains to his cellmate, Tru (Jeremy Keith Hunter) from Baltimore, that they were “Trayvonning” as he grabs a drink and a bag of goodies and sprawls out on the ground, lying as if he were dead.
And yet, Borzoi, a big, fleshy, black police officer, has already informed you (as the lights dimmed) that the story about to unfold is unimportant. He implored you to turn on your phone and answer all manner of communication. Break decorum. There is nothing to see here, he said before pointing out the large, light-up “LAUGH” sign. If you don’t laugh when it commands, he declared, then you are a racist.
Of course, there is everything to see (and hear and take in). And a million reasons why.
It doesn’t take Tru long to see, for example, that Marquis, decked out in his prep school uniform, is white on the inside. But, it’s not Marquis’ clothes or how he says things (like refusing to cuss or pronouncing words in full), but what he says that distinguishes him.
Marquis talks of dreams—of graduating, going to Harvard, and practicing law by the age of 27— with such assuredness of the future not just being there, but being good. Tru, though, no longer speaks of dreams because he’s pursuing something much simpler: staying alive.
Then, Marquis’ adoptive mother, Debra (Jennifer Mendenhall), shows up and with all the power whiteness affords her, backed by a law degree, strong arms Borzoi into releasing both boys into her custody, leading to a cascade of cringe-worthy culture clashes that embarrass the hell out of Marquis. Tru tags along at school, where he meets a gaggle of gratingly annoying millennial girls—Praire (Mendenhall), Meadow (Emma Lou Hebert), and Marquis’ crush, Clementine (Madeline Burrows). Tru sleeps over, taking Marquis’ bed at Debra’s insistence. Tru, appallingly, compares Nietzsche to Tupac Shakur.
“To who?” Marquis asks.
“You killin’ me, smalls!” Tru shouts back.
And then, seamlessly, they launch into a discussion of the Greek gods (and brothers) Apollo and Dionysus. Or, as they are also known: knowledge and ecstasy. Same coin. Two sides.
Playwright Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm’s dexterity with words and command of literature, culture, philosophy, and pop culture infuse not just this moment, but the whole show, and buoy a heavy topic with laughter aimed at stereotypes—across the board. His story is quick, sharp, and biting, excellently directed by Serge Seieden, and bolstered by an ingenious set—mainly two moveable shipping container-esque pieces carved to play multiple scenes.
Add an intelligent cast, one that dares to plum the depths of color to get laughs as Marquis’ (mostly) woefully ignorant, indifferent, and kinda racist family, friends, and community authority figures. His personal village, if you will.
Hunter, who finds a manual Tru wrote on being black (hence the title), drops his pants low and ties a bandanna around his head to up his “bad boy quotient.”
Meadow, who thinks that Marquis is a lost cause and the underground railroad an actual railroad, is all about Hunter when he “cosplays” being black.
Fielder, whose father blames Marquis for the cemetery incident, doesn’t hesitate to suggest that waterboarding is worse than slavery.
Clementine, who becomes Marquis’ girlfriend, tells a groan-inducing story of trying to bond with two black girls by using a word she should not have used.
Debra, who perpetuates all the stereotypes about white and black mothers, assumes that Tru’s mother is a deadbeat incapable of raising him. And not eager to.
Want to go?
Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies
closes February 19, 2017
Details and tickets
Borzoi, who is conditioned by the system to always run after the black kid first, cowers in front of Debra.
And Tru. Who, with all his worldly knowledge, doesn’t fully understand the world he has stumbled into just as Marquis doesn’t get the city streets of Baltimore.
Make no mistake, Hooded is funny. Belly aching, laugh-out-laugh, I-can’t-believe-s/he-went-there irreverently delicious. The names of all the white kids—Clementine, Prairie, Meadow, Hunter, and Fielder—could have been ripped straight from the folders of Stuff White People Like. Then there’s Tru’s detailed analysis of mixing races, which he likens to a silver fox domestication (via selective breeding) program in Siberia that saw the animal’s blackness lessen the tamer they got. It’s not only funny, but also oddly cogent and on point, just as when he distinguishes “nigger” from “nigga,” an invaluable part of the show’s narrative.
“Nigga ain’t profanity,” he tells Marquis. “It’s humanity.”
Dylan Morrison Myers is excellent as Hunter, a deeply offensive jock and a clownish imbecilewho unleashes a downward spiral that overtakes Marquis as swiftly as a flashflood. All the women are pretty funny in their naivety and vanity, as are Strother and Adams.
Jeremy Keither Hunter as Tru and Keith L. Royal Smith as Marquis have got it all. Humor. Swagger. Depth. And, even, at just the right moments, tenderness that conveys love and sadness.
The writing and directing are both clever, careful not to alienate anyone and staying one step ahead of your thoughts while sowing clever tie-ins and foreshadowing that you can’t fully predicted, and yet should have. Throw in some well-timed Miley Cyrus (“Party in the U.S.A.”) and Tupac (“I Get Around”), reference The Wizard of Oz, Greek mythology, and a PBS special (that fox thing), and you’ve got a perfect show. This one will be hard to top, even with 11 more months in 2017.
But, when the laughter in Hooded stops—and it does—you are reminded that no way of life is as sacred as life. And, yet, it’s never that simple, especially for young black men who aren’t so much a product of color but of ideas about color. If it takes a village to raise a child, remember then, it also takes a village to destroy him. At least, that’s what I realized.
Hooded is an amazing production, all around. Hands down, one of the funniest, most important, deeply aching plays I have ever seen.
Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies by Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm . Directed by Serge Seieden . Associate Director: Vaughn Ryan Midder . Featuring Frederick Strother, Jeremy Keith Hunter, Keith L. Royal Smith, Jennifer Mendenhall, Emma Lou Herbert, Madeline Burrows, Dylan Morrison Myers, and Josh Adams . Production: Ethan Sinnot, Set Designer . Brittany Shemuga, Lighting Designer . Brandee Mathies, Costume Designer . David Lamont Wilson, Sound Designer . Kat Fleshman, Properties . Otis Cortez Ramsey-Zoe, Dramaturg . Mimi D’Autremont and Roc Lee, Projections Designers . William M. Woodward, Technical Director . Stage Manager, Bekah Wachenfeld . Produced by Mosaic Theater Company of DC. Reviewed by Kelly McCorkendale.