To experience Hooded feels similar to watching “This is America,” Childish Gambino’s work of art that went viral during the same week as the Hooded opening remount. Both are chock full of symbolism, fraught with the whiplash of joyous highs and earth-shattering pain, and devoid of one clearly stamped takeaway. They leave you hitting the replay button over and over in your mind’s eye or on the computer, seeing something new upon every watching, and feeling no closer to an emotional resolution. Both are impossible to forget. And both share one line that feels core to digesting the stories.
In “This is America,” a refrain reads: “This is America / Don’t catch you slippin’ up.” In Hooded, an entry from the guide that Baltimore-raised Tru writes to teach Marquis “how to be Black” reads “#87: Never let a nigga catch you slippin.’” As suburban prep school kid Marquis would say, in “The King’s English,” this line translates to “Don’t ever let anyone catch you with your guard down.”
Not only does this line serve as a premonition for Marquis, but it also delivers a warning message to the audience: despite keen jokes and timely pop culture references, this is not a comedy. Don’t get comfortable.
Hooded opens with world-smart Tru and sheltered Marquis sharing a jail cell discussing the act of “Trayvoning,” a meme where people pose as if gunned down like Trayvon Martin. Martin, a 17-year-old, unarmed Black teenager, was shot and killed by neighborhood watch member George Zimmerman in 2012 while Martin was walking home from a convenience store, wearing a hooded sweatshirt and holding a pack of skittles and a can of Arizona Iced Tea. This opening piece of information tells you everything you will need to know in the play, should you choose to pay attention. But, like in “This is America,” or the 24-hour news cycle, the power of spectacle to create temporary amnesia will sweep you up and disarm your defenses.
Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies
closes June 3, 2018
Details and tickets
In Hooded, the spectacle comes from every sensory angle. Ethan Sinnott’s kaleidoscopic shipping container set morphs with jaw-dropping agility to portray homes, school, a pizza shop, and mythic dreamscapes. David Lamont Wilson’s laugh tracks alternating with poetry by Tupac and “Lux Aeterna” by Clint Mansell fling the audience from awareness of the Atlas Performing Arts Center, to a fictional, whitewashed neighborhood called Achievement Heights, to Baltimore, to the ancient Grecian cosmos. The dizzying switchbacks purposefully throw you off balance to match the contradictions in playwright Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm’s thought process. As he told dramaturg Otis Cortez Ramsey-Zöe, “All of my plays stem from a personal place of ambivalence; I often have complicated and contradictory opinions about specific issues… I’m not trying to present an answer—hell, I’m confused myself. But giving the competing forces voice and name I think is more useful in consoling these contradictions and starting a conversation.”
Even the characters exist in a state of constant flux that you can’t pin down. Frederick Strother switches from comedic narrator encouraging the audience to be disruptive—to the Black policeman Officer Borzoi who discriminates against the boys, named after a breed of dog that hunts wolves on sight—to the god of truth and prophecy Apollo who approaches Marquis in his dreams. The magnetic talent Jeremy Keith Hunter, as Tru, strategically presents cocksure, meek, and authoritative faces in order to get what he wants. Over the course of his education of what it means “to be Black” from Tru, his classmates, and the adults who control him, Keith Royal Smith shows range and sensitivity as Marquis, a boy emerging from a cocoon of blissful ignorance into a world that sees him as a threat.
Chisholm has written complex characters, and the mostly-returning ensemble cast gives strong performances all around. The women’s wildly differing levels of self-awareness effectively embody the myriad shades of racism in society. Every line uttered by Marni Penning as Marquis’ adoptive mother Debra operates on two levels: we see the way she views herself, as a righteous warrior for legal justice; and we see her as a mother who failed to teach Marquis vital lessons and who projects squirm-inducing false stereotypes onto Tru and his mother. In an incredibly awkward flirtation scene, Emma Loughran as vapid queen bee Meadow confronts her own disturbing misconceptions about sexuality and gains enough self-awareness to run from them. Madeline Joey Rose, as Marquis’ love interest Clementine, seems at the outset of the production to be the most empathetic character, but over time reveals a past that may spawn the most insidious ideas about Marquis.
But despite strong acting, this production contains flaws in its pacing. Serge Seiden’s direction rushes through the most pivotal moments of the play. In particular, a mesmerizing performance by Dylan Morrison Myers as Hunter, a white teenager going through an identity appropriation crisis of Rachel Dolezal-like proportions, is shortchanged by an emotional arc that drops abruptly. And the final pivot points of Marquis’ revelations about how the world sees him feel unduly rushed.
Even so, one device carries the play over its rapid escalations in severity. During many rich conversations between Marquis and Tru, a dramatic scene rewind function teaches the audience how small choices can meaningfully alter interactions, and second chances can make all the difference. But Tru’s most important lesson to Marquis—to never forget that he is Black, because no one else will forget—can only be learned once. By the time Marquis really understands this lesson and truly sees how other people view him, it is too late. He will get no second chance to make a first impression in a racist contemporary America.
The greatest tragedy of the guide—indeed of any survival lessons passed by grim necessity among Black families—is that teachings may prove futile and violence doomed to repeat. That creeping sense of dread, woven with dark humor and spectacle through this Mosaic Theater Company of DC production, will gut you and sit with you in a way that no 24-hour news cycle will.
Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies by Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm. Directed by Serge Seiden. Associate Director: Vaughn Ryan Midder. Featuring Frederick Strother as Officer Borzoi/Apollo, Jeremy Keith Hunter as Tru, Keith L. Royal Smith as Marquis, Marni Penning as Debra/Prairie, Emma Loughran as Meadow, Madeline Joey Rose and Zoe Walpole as Clementine, Dylan Morrison Myers as Hunter/Headmaster Burns, Josh Adams and Ronen Lewis as Fielder/Dionysus/Concerned Citizen. Set Designer: Ethan Sinnott. Lighting Designer: Brittany Shemuga. Costume Designer: Brandee Mathies. Sound Designer: David Lamont Wilson. Projections Designers: Mimi D’Autremont and Roc Lee. Properties: Kat Fleshman. Dramaturg: Otis Cortez Ramsey-Zoe. Stage Manager: Bekah Wachenfeld. Produced by Mosaic Theater Company of DC. Reviewed by Kate Colwell.