The theater year is off to a fast start with two major and eye-opening new plays, both by black playwrights and each completely original. Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s Gloria, which opened at Curious Theatre earlier this month, tells the story of a group of ambitious young people jockeying for position in the offices of a prestigious magazine. It begins with spiteful, amusing, apparently inconsequential chatter, and then a sudden, soul-destroying event reveals the abyss beneath the characters’ feet. Now the Aurora Fox is presenting the regional premiere of Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm’s Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies. Unlike Gloria, Hooded directly addresses the black experience. But like Gloria, it’s a combustible mixture of shrewd comedy and nightmare.
The play begins with two fourteen-year-old boys in a jail cell for minor offenses. Marquis (an earnest and appealing AJ Voliton) is lying face-down on the floor, and Tru (played with wondrous vitality by Randy Chalmers) wants to know what he’s doing. “Trayvon-ing,” says Marquis. Although the conversation that follows is funny, you know nothing lighthearted could ultimately come of an opening like this.
Marquis is the adopted son of a powerful local lawyer (an effective Jacqueline Garcia), and pretty soon she’s arrived to get him out of jail. Being a good liberal, and without paying any attention to the actual human being in front of her, she instantly starts spinning a stereotypical narrative about Tru that includes an overworked and neglectful mother. Still, she gets him released along with Marquis, and the boys bicker and bond as they explore their very different lives and just what blackness means to each of them. Tru, deciding to educate Marquis, puts together the volume that gives the play its title. Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies is a mixture of Tru’s observations and those of Tupac Shakur; page by page, the book’s wisdom unrolls in spiky aphorisms.
At Marquis’s school, Achievement Heights, we encounter the preppie kids he’s hung out with all his life. The boys are smug and arrogant, the girls ditzy. But playwright Chisholm makes room for some complexity. Racist Fielder is the victim of brutal abuse from his father, which he describes — disconcertingly — as if it were a huge joke. Hunter, despite his rich-boy, easy manner, is on a desperate search for identity. The roles are excellently played by Drew Hirschboeck and John Hauser, respectively. One of the girls, Clementine (a shyly charming Adeline Mann), is a little more perceptive than the others and — despite their mocking disbelief — she’s interested in Marquis.
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Hooded is deftly directed by Betty Hart, and its impact is deliberately disruptive. Laugh signs flash at moments when there’s nothing remotely funny to laugh at. Officer Borzoi (a fine performance by Laurence Anthony Curry) amuses when he strolls onto the stage to inform the audience he’s keeping an eye on us, but is a hell of a lot less amusing later in the play. He’s named for the Russian borzoi — an apt metaphor, since the dog is bred to bring down wolves for others to slaughter. Some of the playwright’s other uses of metaphor are less effective. He brings in Nietzsche, along with the conflict between rational Apollo and Dionysus, drunken god of ecstasy. Perhaps these figures represent the differences between Tru and Marquis; if so, it took me a while to puzzle out. But that’s a small quibble about an otherwise stunning production.
Big, unending questions about race are in the news these days. Senator and presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren has been widely criticized for claiming Native American heritage based on her DNA; to be truly Native American, critics say, she would have had to be part of that culture. Yet surely a black man sees himself as no less black because he was raised by a white family, like Barack Obama. And then there’s Rachel Dolezal, a white woman who was hated and reviled for passing as black because she identified more with her adopted black siblings than with her abusive white parents. Dolezal, who worked devotedly for civil rights, believed that racial identity was a construct created by colonialist whites. The identity issues in Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies evoke these anguished current debates.
If the rest of the theater season lives up to the strong start of Hooded and Gloria, we’re in for a wild and thrilling ride in 2019.
Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies, presented by the Aurora Fox through February 10, 9900 East Colfax Avenue, Aurora, 303-739-1970, aurorafox.org.