Officer Borzoi (Brian Nelson Jr.) enters the stage. He stares they audience down until there is quiet, and begins his opening monologue to welcome everyone to the theater. He takes out his cell phone and begins:
“If you have one of these, please take it out now. Do not turn it off. Do not silence it. On the contrary, please set your ringer to its highest volume… this story is unimportant. If your phone rings, answer it. If you receive a text, reply.”
Already, the audience knows they are in for something different. As patrons take out their phones to follow instructions, Borzoi continues his speech and points to the laugh signs above his head:
“This is the laugh light. It instructs you when to laugh. If the light is on, you laugh. If the light is off, you don’t. Laughing when the light is off, makes you racist.”
With that final warning, the play begins.
First Floor Theater presents Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies
Written by Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm and directed by Mikael Burke, Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies follows Marquis (Jayson Lee) and Tru (Jaden Gilbert) – two 14-year-old black teenagers living completely different lives. Marquis lives in Achievement Heights, a wealthy suburb with his two white parents who graduated from Harvard. His life has been built for success, and he sees a future in which he follows his parents’ footsteps of top grades and a law degree from the university of his choosing. Then there is Tru, a street-smart kid teen from the inner-city of Baltimore, and the audience encounters their first meeting in a holding cell. What begins as a coincidence turns into a somewhat forced teacher/student relationship, as Tru assumes the mentor role and teaches Marquis how to be Black through his self-written manual, Being Black for Dummies. While reluctant at first, Marquis realizes there is much he can learn from Tru, and as the story continues, the two realize they may have more in common than they ever thought.
Witty and Thought-Provoking Writing
In this writer’s view, Chisholm’s comedy is quick and smart, forcing us to confront our assumptions about themselves and the world around them. As the play continues, we watch Marquis’ world come to life, and how his white school peers, teachers, and even mother interact with him and his identity as a Black man. As the laugh light continues to flash on and off, the audience certainly begins by following the rules clearly set up at the beginning. However, as the jokes become more poignant and Chisholm’s humor turns darker,we are invited to deeply consider the meaning of Borzoi’s warning at the top of the play: “Laughing when the light is off, makes you racist.”
Lee and Gilbert as Marquis and Tru carry much of the story. They share a stage chemistry that allows their comedic timing to jump off of each other, making their scenes funny, but also allowing us to see an authentic friendship taking form.
Three female students – Meadow (Maggie Scrantom), Clementine (Caroline Hendricks), and Prairie (Lauren Pizzi Mongtomgery) also carry a difficult challenge. As the stereotypes of female prep-school teenagers, they carry the risk of becoming too cliché. In this writer’s view, their portrayals were just right. They begin their first scene taking selfies at the school. Their interactions are hilarious, and at times uncomfortable to watch – especially as their perceptions of Marquis rise to the surface. Hunter (Casey Morris) and Fielder (Andrew Cutler), Marquis’ best friends, carry a similar challenge, but also rise to the occasion.
The Den Theatre performance space is already intimate, and Burke’s choice to keep the action boxed into a smaller space so close to the audience is especially effective – forcing us to encounter every detail, no matter how uncomfortable we may feel. Scenic Designer Sotirios Livaditis’ design consists of two white screens and two white benches, with a couple “add-on” pieces that come on and off as needed. The screens move throughout the play to create locations, such as Marquis’ bedroom, the yard outside Achievement Preparatory Academy, or even the holding cell at the beginning of the piece. When the script calls for a bird’s-eye view of the first scene within the holding cell to be broadcast in real time, and Projection Designer Sid Branca projects it on one of the white screens. It helps us feel close to the action, and when combined with the projection of the boys’ actions on the white screen, the sensation of feeling intrusive intensifies. The boys are always being watched, and this theme that extends throughout the play starts right at the beginning, reinforced by these set and projection design choices.
Relevant and well-crafted, Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies is, in this writer’s view, a story that must be shared.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read — Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
Andrew Cutler… Fielder/Dionysus
Jalen Gilbert… Tru
Caroline Hendricks… Clementine
Jayson Lee… Marquis
Casey Morris… Hunter/Headmaster Burns
Brian Nelson Jr…. Officer Borzoi/Apollo
Lauren Pizzi Montgomery…. Prairie/Debra
Maggie Scrantom… Meadow
Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm… Playwright
Mikael Burke… Director
Sotirios Livaditis… Scenic Design
Eric Watkins… Lighting Design
Grover Holloway… Sound Design
Owé Preye Engobor… Costume Design
Rachel Flesher... Violence and Intimacy Design
Jennifer Wernau… Properties Design
Sid Branca… Projection Design
Kayla Menz… Stage Manager
Running through November 17, 2018
Thursdays at 7:30pm
Fridays at 7:30pm
Saturdays at 7:30pm
Sundays at 3:00pm
Running Time: 1 hour and 40 minutes, no intermission.
The Den Theatre
1331 N. Milwaukee Avenue
Chicago, IL 60622
About the Author:
Lauren Katz is a freelance director and dramaturge, and new to the Chicago Theatre Scene. She recently moved from Washington DC, where she worked with Mosaic Theater Company of DC in Company Management, as well as directed around town with various theaters.
Click here to read more Picture this Post stories by Lauren Katz.