Thoughts of a Colored Man Review: Ntozake Shange meets The Wire

“Thoughts of a Colored Man,”  Keenan Scott II’s often powerful, often entertaining debut Broadway play about a day in the life of seven Black men in Brooklyn,  is performed by a terrific seven-member cast of familiar faces from such stellar series grounded in authentic Black life as The Wire, The Chi, When They See Us, and Pose*. At the same time, it is also clearly inspired by “for colored girls who have considered suicide/ when the rainbow Is enuf,” the “choreopoem” (as its playwright Ntozake Shange dubbed it) that was a hit on Broadway in the 1970s. 

 Like Shange’s seven all-female characters (called the Lady in Red, the Lady in Blue, etc. after the color of their costumes) who told the stories of Black women’s lives through poetry, song and dance, Scott’s seven all-male characters (called Anger, Lust, Happiness and other emotions or character traits) tell the stories of Black men’s lives through spoken word poetry, and occasional song (sung, beautifully, by Luke James.).

But like the various series in which the cast members have performed, “Thoughts of a Colored Man” also presents credible characters in more or less straightforward scenes – watching a basketball game and bickering in a neighborhood barbershop (the best scene), working or shopping at a grocery store, discussing women while waiting endlessly for a bus, waiting at a hospital maternity ward, coaching basketball in a school gym, shooting the breeze on a line to get the latest Air Jordans. 

Even the set alternates between abstract design (the word “Colored” dramatically centered) and projections of actual bus stops and buildings.

If there is a sometimes uneasy integration between the Ntozake Shange-like abstract poetry and the TV series-like concrete monologues and dialogues, “Thoughts of A Colored Man” still manages a rich layering of insight, humor, portraiture, and an exploration of a wide range of issues facing Black men, from gentrification to interracial relationships to the community’s attitudes toward gay men to NIL (the new rules regarding student athletes’ ability to make money through their “name, image and likeness.”)

The play is presented as if in a single day, chronologically from morning to night, in twenty scenes that often pair together characters with opposing character traits or world-views, sometimes in direct argument, sometimes in contrasting and alternating poems. In an early-morning scene, Anger (Tristan Mack Wilds) begins: “I woke up and the sun was nowhere to be found….”When it’s his turn, Happiness (Bryan Terrell Clark) begins: “I woke up with the sun this morning, with love by my side and I decided to run with the wind.”  In a later scene of dialogue, Lust and Love (Da’ Vinchi and Dyllón Burnside respectively) are waiting at a bus stop together when two women walk by; their differing responses are amusing, if obvious.

In what feels almost like a stand-up routine, three of the characters try to outdo each other on how poor they were:

Anger: I remember when we had to use knock off brand toothpaste, we were so poor. 
Passion: I remember we had to squeeze every little bit of toothpaste out to make that one tube last, we were so poor. 
Depression: We couldn’t even afford toothpaste. We had to brush our teeth with baking soda. We would wet the end then dip it in the box. 

Luckily, the names of the characters are played down, left unuttered (until a poem at the very end) and we are allowed to get to know them as much as individuals as archetypes, going beyond the one emotion assigned to them. So, yes, Depression (Forrest McClendon) is depressed that he works as a stock boy at a grocery store, although he graduated at the top of his class; he was unable to accept a scholarship to M.I.T. because, he says, “my mom couldn’t take care of my younger brother alone.” But he’s near bliss on the sneaker line, and much activated in argument about the changes in the neighborhood, where he was born and bred, with Happiness, who is a recent transplant (and indistinguishable from a gentrifier.) Wisdom (Esau Pritchett) is the oldest character and, yes, the wisest, who owns the barbershop; we also learn of his difficulties with his Nigerian-born father, and how he met his wife of 42 years; she was the nurse who tended to his wounds after he was beaten up by police. Even better, conversations begun in one scene — most notably in the barbershop, where all the characters have assembled at noon time — often carry over later in the day, in what sometimes approaches a plot, or at least character development.

Strict devotees of linear narrative might not feel fully satisfied with the degree of that development. Lovers of poetry might likewise feel shortchanged. But I found both joy and depth in some of these exchanges, and in the increasingly complex interplay among the characters.

At the barbershop, newcomer Happiness explains that he’s a first-time visitor. “I stumbled across this place on Yelp and it had great reviews.”

“Yelp!” Lust yelps. “Somebody take his black card.”

It’s a funny line, but later, it comes back at us in a different context, with a different emotion. (It is also interesting to note that the conflict between Happiness and Lust goes beyond a single issue: Happiness is gay, and Lust is kicked out of the barber shop for using a gay slur.) Happiness, who grew up in a two-parent upper middle class family, soliloquizes alone in his office about how he was viewed as less than Black because his father was around. “Well, I lost my superhero six months ago. I guess we’re even. So can I get my Black Card now?”

It is one of the moments in “Thoughts of a Colored Man,” when the playwright (despite the singular “man” in the title) drives home a main point of the play — that the universe of Black men is not monolithic; it’s kaleidoscopic.

Thoughts of a Colored Man
John Golden Theater through March 20, 2022
Written by Keenan Scott II
Directed by Steve H. Broadnax III
Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $49 – $225
Music by Te’La and Brother Kamau, set design by Robert Brill, co-costume design by Toni-Leslie James and Devario D. Simmons, lighting design by Ryan O’Gara, projection design by Sven Ortel, sound design by Mikaal Sulaiman
Cast: Dyllón Burnside, Bryan Terrell Clark, Da’Vinchi, Luke James, Forrest McClendon, Esau Pritchett, Tristan Mack Wilds.

Photographs by Julieta Cervantes

*Mack Wilds portrayed Michael Lee in The Wire;  Luke James as Victor “Trig” Taylor in The Chi; Bryan Terrell Clark as the guard Starks in When They See Us; Dyllón Burnside as Ricky in Pose

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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