Signs play an important part in the episodic play Thoughts of a Colored Man. For one thing, the show itself was a sign: Thoughts was the first new show to put up a marquee during the COVID shutdown. In February, no one knew exactly how or when an opening would happen, so the display was a big, bold, crocus-yellow promise that the theater was going to return. The play also takes place on a sign — Robert Brill’s set is a gigantic billboard. Behind the performers on the Golden Theatre’s stage is a huge white rectangle with the word COLORED blocked out in gray-on-white letters. As the characters visit various locations in their neighborhood in Brooklyn, the performers wander around and on the billboard’s metal framework. Every brightly illuminated choice emphasizes that Thoughts of a Colored Man has been designed to be seen from far away. “Welcome to my mind,” says playwright Keenan Scott II during the preshow announcement, and the drama — the exploded view of that mind — is explicitly about making visible what’s usually kept private.
Thoughts is Scott’s impressionistic portrait of Black manhood. Seven men with allegorical names like Happiness and Wisdom speak in casual banter when in company and flights of poetry when alone. It is both like and unlike Ntozake Shange’s For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf, which also used poetic monologues, spoken by quasi-allegorical, quasi-autobiographical figures. Scott’s language is less high-flown than Shange’s, but director Steve H. Broadnax III nonetheless says Thoughts is partly an “homage” to the 1976 choreopoem. When I spoke to Broadnax back in March, he said “We’re hoping to add dimension to the Black male, and while doing that, claim that we, too, are America. It’s very specific, but it’s sublime — we are part of the American fabric, and we want to be known for our full dimension.”
Scott’s text shows us this “full dimension” via quick scenes, some only a few lines, others long and comparatively luxurious. All seven men get equal time — though no one seems to have told Forrest McClendon’s Depression, whose electrifying energy makes him seem the first among these equals. Depression works at an upscale grocery store with a name that starts with a big, green “Wh” (Sven Ortel did the tongue-in-cheek projection design), which partly explains his twanging tension. He supports his mother and brothers on an insufficient paycheck; his degree from MIT isn’t exactly useful while dealing with restocking issues. In the play’s best and most delicate scene, he and a few of the other men line up for the new Nike Air Jordans. “If you’re Black, you got a favorite pair,” says Lust (the comic standout Da’Vinchi), and the way the men laugh together about history, beauty, money, and clothing tells you more about their paths to manhood than the less subtle, more expositional sections.
These include an encounter at the barbershop, where the requisite wise barber (Esau Pritchett) lays down the law about respecting everyone, even the swish gentrifier played (with brio) by Bryan Terrell Clark. (There’s something odd about the firmness with which the play asserts its don’t-make-fun-of-the-gay-guy bona fides right after making a joke about having a dog with “they” pronouns.) The gentrifier and the locals have a complicated conversation about what constitutes a neighborhood, but for the most part, the play straightforwardly states life lessons, many of which become applause lines. Tristan Mack Wilds has a monologue about the rules imparted by neighborhood elders back in the day, like “Respect your heroes, but know they’re not perfect.” The audience claps at this truism — and they get in the habit, so most of the 20 or so scenes end with a little ovation. Luke James sings occasional musical interludes, which do add grace and gravity, but Scott’s own rhapsodic mode can be clunky. “She was like the perfect use of assonance,” Love (Dyllón Burnside) says about a hazily imagined woman. “I found an Afrocentric descended angel that reminded me of Aphrodite, and I wondered what would be her aphrodisiac.”
Where Scott does shine (and Broadnax burnishes him) is in his dialogue work, which includes teasing conversations that slip deep beneath the men’s skin. In their bus-stop hangout, for instance, Da’Vinchi and Burnside find a rhythm together that swings from comedy to confession and back again. Scott is clearly drawn to monologue and poetic oration, but his greatest gifts lie in scripting complex interactions. When his performers speak alone, they can seem flat or self-indulgent. But when Scott puts multiple characters together onstage, the men ricochet off one another, sometimes shifting alliances in a single sentence. The more people there are in a scene, the more they form a team that sometimes plays together, sometimes plays against itself. It’s exhilarating to see the group as it undermines and convinces and mocks and comforts. It feels, in these moments, as though you are actually watching thoughts at play.
Still, there are obviously reasons why conversations — all that breathing and face-to-faceness — might be out of style for a few months. Shows written during the past year, with the constraints of social distancing uppermost in writers’ minds, will surely lead to plays like Letters of Suresh. The airless Rajiv Joseph play now at Second Stage is an epistolary exercise, all the text spoken by actors who never actually talk to one another and are only rarely onstage at the same time. Everyone in Letters stays six feet apart; the main theme is connection through non-presence; we could have easily done this one on Zoom. What’s odd is that Joseph wrote it before March 2020, so its limitations were all self-imposed.
Melody Park (Ali Ahn) reads the letters her great-uncle Father Hashimoto (Thom Sesma) left behind at his death. These consist of the 90-something-year-old priest’s correspondence with Suresh (Ramiz Monsef), who also sometimes calls his one-time lover Amelia (Kellie Overbey) on the phone. (If you know Joseph’s 2008 Animals Out of Paper, some of Suresh’s backstory will be familiar.) There’s nothing inherently untheatrical about writing letters, but where Joseph might have found drama in the slippage between a writer’s inward thought and the expressed idea, he finds only unlikely actions — a teenager writing a priest, lol, sure — taken by unconvincingly realized people. Seen hard on the heels of Thoughts of a Colored Man, this show makes a second cautionary tale about the dangers of avoiding dialogue. Characters who speak to each other test each other’s thinking; a playwright can hear when their words are unraveling into nonsense. But characters who speak into space can spiral very quickly. If you do not have the hand for that sort of composition, you might not hear the way it rings false — at least not until it’s in front of an audience, at which point, it’s too late.
Thoughts of a Colored Man is at the Golden Theatre.
Letters of Suresh is at Second Stage’s Kiser Theater until October 24.