Keenan Scott II’s engrossing Broadway debut play, Thoughts of a Colored Man, appears to be a masculine version of Ntozake Shange’s 1976 For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/When the Rainbow Is Enuf updated to 2021. Both plays have seven unnamed characters all the same gender, take place in 20 scenes, and mix poetry, prose and dialogue. However, Scott’s play develops characters that each have a through line and they encounter each other as members of the same Brooklyn community.
Set on one Friday from 6 AM to 1 AM the next morning in a Brooklyn community experiencing gentrification, we meet seven African American men in various combinations each given a monologue addressed directly at the audience to tell us part of their stories. In the final scene, they announce their names (Love, Happiness, Wisdom, Lust, Passion, Depression and Anger) but by then most of these appellations have become obvious.
Robert Brill’s fluid design concept is an empty stage with a billboard on which Sven Ortel’s projections tell us where each scene takes place (a street corner, a Whole Foods store, a barbershop, a bus stop, a hospital waiting room, a park, etc.) allowing for quick transitions between the 20 segments. The language of the play includes urban buzz words as well as some Black slang that is usually explained in the dialogue. The costume designs by Toni-Leslie James and Devario D. Simmons in combinations of black, white, red and grey make it easy to follow the characters long before we know their names and their stories.
Among the most memorable scenes is the one in Joe’s Barber Shop which brings together all of the characters as they await their turns and argue about a basketball game they are watching. Their talk is of the changes in the neighborhood, their memories and their discontent with the improvements that have made them feel they no longer belong in their community. When one of the men (Da’Vinci, Lust) insults a new customer who has just moved into the renovated Franklin Building and who has accidentally revealed that he is gay, the manager played by Esau Pritchett (Wisdom) immediately cuts him down, with the demand that there be no such talk in his establishment and throws him out. Another powerful scene is on the line for the release of the new Jordan sneaker at 11 PM at night in which four men of different ages reveal their lives over their connection to sneakers when an act of gratuitous violence occurs.
While all of the performances in Steve H. Broadnax III’s excellent production are fine, some stand out because we learn more about the men than others, with the characters varying from 19 to senior citizen. As the sixtyish Nigerian barber, Pritchett as Wisdom is an authority figure to the others with his vast experience of life from two perspectives. Forrest McClendon’s Depression is an engineering genius condemned to work in a dead-end job having given up his scholarship to M.I.T. to stay home and take care of his mother.
A former college basketball athlete whose career was ended when he damaged his knee but now coaches high school students who are looking for the big money contracts, Tristan Mack Wilds is powerful as Anger. Dyllón Burnside as the youngest character Love is a sophomore college student who declaims poetry and dreams about the perfect woman for him.
The newest member of the community, Bryan Terrell Clark as Happiness is a gay man of privilege who has worked his way to Director of Finance, a new condo, a fiancé he loves and a life he thoroughly enjoys, though he has found he is too black for his white friends and too white for his black friends. Eventually we learn that Luke James as Passion is a teacher who also moonlights at the barbershop for his father-in-law and is awaiting the birth of a healthy boy, after losing his first child. Da’Vinchi (Lust) has the most incomplete backstory as a confirmed lover of women who grew up alongside of Love, who was abandoned by his parents and lived with his grandparents as neighbor to Lust.
While the play at times seems tamer than it ought to be and the cast does not seem representative of the entire African American community, Thoughts of a Colored Man beautifully integrates its special form of theater in the genre that Ntozake Shange promulgated. The use of poetry is so well delivered by the actors that it seems perfectly natural to their speech. With occasional songs from three-times Grammy-nominated Luke James, the play is a coherent and absorbing tale of seven Black men today as they go about their daily lives in contemporary Brooklyn culminating in some sobering resolutions.
Thoughts of a Colored Man (through March 29, 2021)
Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212–239-6200 or visit http://www.telecharge.com
Running time: two hours without an intermission