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Broadway's 'Thoughts of A Colored Man' explores diversity, power, of Black mens' voices

Left to Right: Luke James, Esau Pritchett, Da'Vinchi, Forrest McClendon, Dyllón Burnside, Tristan Mack Wilds, Bryan Terrell Clark in "Thoughts of a Colored Man" (Julieta Cervantes)
Left to Right: Luke James, Esau Pritchett, Da'Vinchi, Forrest McClendon, Dyllón Burnside, Tristan Mack Wilds, Bryan Terrell Clark in "Thoughts of a Colored Man" (Julieta Cervantes)

Playwright Keenan Scott II‘s “Thoughts of a Colored Man” explores the lives, pressures and passions of seven contemporary Black men who live in one Brooklyn neighborhood.

The characters — never given names — are identified by traits they embody: Lust, Love, Anger, Passion, Wisdom, Depression and Happiness. As each tells his story through dialogue, slam poetry, song and monologue, the men reveal a complexity of experience that embodies traits of all the characters — showing that each man’s experience is as unique as it is shared.

Here & Now’s Robin Young sat down with playwright Scott the day after the premiere and he expressed gratitude for the opportunity to showcase his play.

Watch on YouTube.

After “growing up in this city, walking these streets, seeing the marquees and billboards my whole life, never imagining I would be on one of them,” the premiere was a proud moment, he says — a culmination of years of wanting Black men to feel seen.

The play marks the first time a Broadway show has had an all-Black team both on and off-stage.

“I wrote it to have the complexity and the spectrum of Black men on showcase like never before,” Scott says.

Actor Dyllón Burnside, who plays Love, says that role spoke to him. But that he could have played any of the roles since the characteristics that define each of them are nuanced.

“[The] beauty of what Keenan has written is that any of these men could be perceived as Love as some point,” Burnside says.

Forrest McClendon’s character Depression once won a scholarship to the renowned university Massachusetts Institute of Technology but stayed in Brooklyn instead to take care of his mother and now works at Whole Foods for health insurance. McClendon says it’s a privilege to put a face to depression. He describes his character’s mental illness as situational and something experienced by many Black men.

“We don’t have an opportunity to speak about that,” he says.

The show, which deals with issues like social status, homophobia, parenting, poverty, racism, marginalization and microaggressions (or “macro aggressions,” as Burnside calls them), is resonating with audiences, including those at the show’s premiere last week who chimed in with cheers and shouts.

“We’re depending on the audience to give us the feedback, to give us the ‘amens’ and the ‘uh-huhs,’ ” Burnside says, adding that the audience is like an eighth character.

Playwright Scott says that many of the scenes — including one where Depression describes his humiliation when an old classmate finds him working behind the cash register at Whole Foods and tells him, “You’re too good for this” — come from his own life.

“That was me,” he says, explaining that despite his college degree, he ended up working at a grocery store at the height of the recession.

He says the weight of that experience “landed on him” and that he wrote the play because he “wanted to feel empowered in a way I didn’t feel at the moment.”

Burnside says one of the show’s lines that resonates for him is when the character Lust says, “Everybody wants to be Black until it’s time to be Black.” The actor says it speaks to the idea that Black cultural properties are celebrated. “Everyone wants to be able to dance like that, and sing like that,” he says, but when it comes to actually being Black, “they don’t want to be that.”

He says that for Black people, “it’s important for us to reclaim our narrative.

McClendon says part of that has to do with tearing down the tropes and stereotypes that follow Black actors.

“I wanted to walk onto stage as an actor, not have to sing, not have to dance and not have to dribble a basketball and to literally feel as though I was being myself,” McClendon says. “And at the top of this play that’s exactly what I got to do.”

For Scott, one of the highlights of staging “Thoughts of a Colored Man” was working with the actors.

“It’s amazing to work with these beautiful men in the rehearsal room,” Scott says. “For us it was healing, it was therapy, it was church and it was a safe place where we could walk into every day and know that we could be our full body selves.”

He adds that it’s also wonderful to put a little of himself onto the stage: “I have a little DNA in every one of those characters.”

Karyn Miller-Medzon produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd Mundt. Miller-Medzon also adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.