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‘Thoughts of a Colored Man’ Cites Three Strong Women

Three Bone Theatre production runs through May 19

The cast of Thoughts of a Colored Man hanging out in a barbershop
The cast of ‘Thoughts of a Colored Man.’ (Photo courtesy of Three Bone Theatre)

So Lust and Passion walk into a bar … You can imagine how fervently I’ve longed to lead off a review with a line like that for close to 40 years. Well, now that Keenan Scott II’s Thoughts of a Colored Man has almost provided that opportunity, you can see that I’ve pulled the trigger … or jumped the gun.

For in multiple scenes of Scott’s 2021 script, we can find Love, Lust, Depression, Passion and Happiness all congregated in a Brooklyn barbershop run by Wisdom and Anger.

Scott gives us more than a hint that Thoughts of a Colored Man was written as a companion piece of Ntozake Shange’s for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf. That 1976 “choreopoem” centered seven women with similarly abstract names, corresponding with the colors of the rainbow, and is similarly studded with monologues and poetry.

Scott’s newer piece, which runs at the Arts Factory through May 19, was flawlessly cast by director Sidney Horton for Three Bone Theatre. Imbued with just the right sizzle and raw edge, it comes at us evolved into slam poetry rants rather than incantatory spells.

Less obviously, Scott’s form is modeled on “Four Women,” one of Nina Simone’s signature songs. Simone gives us the names of her women after she has told their stories, but we’re usually not in suspense for appreciably more than a minute as the complete sequence clocks in at under five. Unless you’ve paid close attention to your playbill before the lights dim, this playwright will make you wait nearly the full intermission-less 90 minutes until, one by one, we get the group reveal.

Thankfully, plenty of names pop up in various scenes. At the barbershop, Kobe, LeBron, and MJ are upheld as the GOAT by bickering customers and kibitzers, moving right along to a similarly lightweight comparison of rap giants past and present. Equally memorable, and no less intense, there’s a lengthy dispute about the best basketball sneakers of all time as the group stands in line for a late-night release of the newest Jordans carrying the legendary Jumpman logo.

Two men shaking hands in a barbershop in Thoughts of a Colored Man
Graham Williams as Wisdom and Dionte Darko as Lust in ‘Thoughts of A Colored Man.’ (Photo courtesy of Three Bone Theatre)

Wisdom welcomes us to Joe’s Barbershop, but it becomes clearer as the meandering chatter proceeds that old Joe has retired or passed away, leaving him in charge.

Depression also goes unidentified as he’s bagging groceries, retrieving carts or stocking shelves at Whole Foods, though he relays boss’s orders to an offstage Timmy. So as Scott veers and swerves on his path of slam poetry and raw prose, with some rhythmic prose bridging the gap, he is also at play with raw specifics and unspoken generalities.

The opening question that Depression poses, “Who is the Colored Man? Is he a king … or is he a slave?” invites that kind of approach — or evasion. Ironically, only Depression will introduce himself well before the evening is over, at a little past 7:30 p.m.

One of the ways Scott has of stringing out his opposing tracks is by offering signposts in his stage directions that tell us what time of day it is, steadily moving us forward. Horton has these projected on the upstage wall perfectly on cue.

And whether you’re Love or Lust, Depression or Happiness, you have a personal story. Depression, for example, fumbled an opportunity to break away from Brooklyn and attend MIT on a full scholarship. Giving that up by taking care of his mom — without a moment’s hesitation — he settled for the ongoing indignity of Whole Foods.

On the other hand, Happiness is a stranger in town, living with his fiancé. He grew up in the South, his parents were the first in his family to earn six figures, and that’s why he was shunned by the relatives back home. Up in Brooklyn, he feels no less alienated, both because he is prosperous and because he is gay.

The cast of ‘Thoughts of a Colored Man.’ (Photo courtesy of Three Bone Theatre)

Scott is pulling hard here against answering his own opening question. The reason that such fascinating hostility flares up between Depression and Happiness in an aisle at Whole Foods is that neither one can answer “Who is the Colored Man?” when they meet one.

Both pointedly tell each other, “You don’t know me,” which is what any of Scott’s characters could have shouted at us at the beginning if the playwright were less designing and discreet. Or if he hadn’t been aware that any given man in question cannot answer any better than by telling us, one by one, who they are.

It’s hard for me to resist applying the same observation more widely to the whole Black theatre scene in Charlotte these days. Having sampled Penumbra in Minneapolis presenting August Wilson, Black Ensemble in Chicago celebrating Marvin Gaye, and a multitude of companies from across the US bringing their best to the National Black Theatre Festival in Winston-Salem in even numbered years — ahem, the International Black Theatre Festival in 2024 (July 29-August 3) — I’m always telling people that the Black performers, directors, and theatercraftsmen that we have in the QC are second to none.

The catch is: not only doesn’t the Charlotte theatregoing public seem to realize the bounty in our midst. The artists themselves seem to be sleeping on it, to a greater degree now than ever before, when we were merely equals.

Lesser performers and directors might struggle with the challenge of portraying Anger, Passion, or Wisdom and real people at the same time. Horton and his able cast wisely let it slide.

When he’s not shaving, shearing and trimming at Joe’s, Devin Clark as Anger trains and does drills with highly-ranked basketball players who aspire to the big-name colleges, the NBA draft, and huge commercial endorsements. Or he drifts into nostalgic recollections of his peak playing days when he was “nice.”

He earned his scholarship back in the day, so he’s worried about how today’s NIL generation will maintain their dedication — and their grades, if b-ball doesn’t pan out.

Jonovan Adams, another mainstay on the local scene, also assumes a mentor’s role as Passion, a seasoned teacher of 26 students — plus cameo roles as social worker, psychiatrist and surrogate parent, depending on the kid and his or her homelife. Neither Passion nor Anger is likely to strike you as particularly tough: more likely, Clark and Adams will come across as personable and authentic as ever.

It is well that Passion invokes the OGs of yesteryear who helped him growing up, hanging around the ‘hood and doling out free advice. He wants to be one of those old heads now, a street scholar. That’s what cool, easygoing-yet-stern Graham Williams personifies at his shop as Wisdom, conscientiously doling out sharp cuts and implacably demanding a buck for the swear jar each time a customer — or Anger — curses or breaches decorum.

Dionte Darko as Lust is the most-often-fined in the group, a youngblood with repeat offenses in swearing, misogyny and homophobia in and out of the barbershop. With his undimmed geniality, Darko is so useful to have around. Aside from needing to apologize to Wisdom for his multiple trespasses, he also riles up the romantic Daylon Jones as Love, so vulnerably poetic in his amatory feelings that he has not yet dared to approach his beloved — while Lust will instantly harass any skirt that walks by, previously known or not.

Dr. Nehemiah Lawson as Happiness in 'Thoughts of a Colored Man'
Dr. Nehemiah Lawson as Happiness in ‘Thoughts of a Colored Man’ (Photo courtesy of Three Bone Theatre)

With similar boorishness, Lust also runs afoul of Dr. Nehemiah Lawson as Happiness. Renowned as the Minstrel of Something Rotten and Leading Player of Pippin at Theatre Charlotte, lead Drifter in Beautiful at Matthews Playhouse, and @_thesingingdentist on Instagram, Lawson has more than sufficient urbanity and polish for portraying a relatively mundane financial director, so it’s interesting to see him in a performance that discards stage magic in favor of wariness, loneliness and a touch of anxiety.

Maybe Scott would have preferred someone older than Lawson in Happiness’s encounters with Lust and Depression, but in the Whole Foods scene especially, Horton’s calculus paid off for me even though it changed the chemistry. If there was any bullying flavor intended in the hostility between Lust and Happiness, that is gone.

Marvin King bookends the show as Depression and, with a long white tunic that echoes the twin white fires of his flowing beard, sanctifies it with a mystic, ceremonial aura that the more worldly slam poetry and prose never dispels.

Marvin King as Depression in ‘Thoughts of a Colored Man.’ (Photo courtesy of Three Bone Theatre)

King’s mighty presence certainly endures when he descends to the degradation of a Whole Foods grocery drudge, and the reason why he discloses his name before anyone else will become clear enough if we’ve watched closely.

In this cityscape of living, breathing, struggling abstractions, Depression is probably the one who best encompasses them all. By that time, Scott has fastened upon a fresh muse, supplanting Shange’s Colored Girls and Simone’s “Four Women.”

This third inspiration is Lorraine Hansberry’s Raisin, handed down from Langston Hughes, and the effects of the sun are still the same as they were at the height of the Harlem Renaissance.

Read more of Perry Tannenbaum’s theatre writing here.

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