Review: “Hooded, Or Being Black for Dummies” (First Floor Theater)

Jalen Gilbert and Jayson Lee/Photo: WHO IS SHE Photography.

Writing for one’s time is a risk in our current theatre model. The playwright runs into the danger of being too radical to be produced for sedate audiences, or too of the moment with the news cycle constantly spinning, and thus running into irrelevance. Tragically, but also fortuitously, for script-writer Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm, his work “Hooded, Or Being Black for Dummies” is fresh now and looks to sadly remain relevant for time to come.

His story centers on two African-American teens, Marquis (Jayson Lee) and Tru (Jalen Gilbert), who meet in a jail cell one night. Marquis was picked up by the cops for trespassing and he was caught “Trayvoning,” an Internet meme that he is performing with white friends who get away. Tru was picked up for loitering, but it seems more likely that he was picked up for “being black,” as he claims. Tru gets out of jail the same time as Marquis because he plays up to the stereotyping sympathies of Debra (Lauren Pizzi Montgomery), Marquis’ white mother. Tru spends the next couple days shadowing Marquis at his prep school in Achievement Heights, seemingly to get away from his supposedly impoverished street life in Baltimore, but actually because he wants to teach Marquis to abandon the influence of his white peers and learn how to be a black man, as laid out by Tupac. Marquis’ white friends, Hunter (Casey Morris), Fielder (Andrew Cutler), alternate interrogating and mimicking Tru, while Marquis’ white female classmates Meadow (Maggie Scrantom) and Clementine (Caroline Hendricks) debate whether or not he is dateable. Clementine has a crush on Marquis, but it’s questionable whether she likes him or the idea of being with someone who lives a different experience.

Caroline Hendricks, Maggie Scrantom, Lauren Pizzi Montgomery, Jayson Lee, Casey Morris and Andrew Cutler/Photo: WHO IS SHE Photography.

Director Mikael Burke handles the absurdity of Chisholm’s script with intelligent staging and the development of several great comedic bits. Chisholm’s scenes are circular, often leading to a blackout and starting with the same exact dialogue exchange once the lights rise again. Burke never forgets the push and pull of that energy, that Lee and Gilbert are often stuck playing out the same scenarios with white people over and over again, and they must figure out how best to address racism, rejection, and violence in the moment. The Den’s secondary upstairs space is not large, but Burke is able to move a wealth of people around in circles, as each character moves closer or farther away from understanding the two main characters. The young actors he works with have been encouraged to make intense physical choices, and these lead to some amazing stage kisses, a couple of fantastic frozen faces, and a general free-for-all energy that is abruptly cut off in the play’s final moments.

Chisholm’s work is well supported by Lee and Gilbert as a pair of mismatched friends who understand each other better than anyone else onstage. Montgomery is hilarious as Lee’s pushy lawyer mother, and just as effective playing a mean girl underling. Morris goes places I did not expect in his performance, and his seduction scene with Scrantom is as ridiculous as one could hope for. Hendricks sees Clementine with clear eyes, and doesn’t excuse her bad judgment just because she legitimately enjoys Marquis’ company.

I’m not entirely sure why yet, but I feel like the play’s ending lacks a step. Chisholm takes the audience on a sarcastic and vibrant journey, but we end up in a place that underlines the point he is making in a way that felt underdeveloped, or too bluntly stated, or at least utterly sped up in a way that meant it didn’t track for me, so the whole experience became diminished. There is some reference to Greek mythology throughout that pops up at the play’s closing that made it harder for Chisholm’s larger metaphor to land for me. Still, the audience I viewed the play with was stunned into profound silence on the night I attended. They could see why this play needs to be done now, and that sort of speaking truth to power is worth catching in our city.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: A timely and satirical script gamely directed and sharply performed.

DIE RATING: d8 – “Not Bad, Not Great”

Show: “Hooded, Or Being Black for Dummies”

Venue: The Den Theater (1331 N Milwaukee Ave)