‘Thoughts of a Colored Man’ Falters and It Should Be Allowed To
Very few pieces of contemporary art show us Black men who are alive, on the “right” side of the law, and (in their own ways) thriving. ‘Thoughts of a Colored Man’, directed by Steve H. Broadnax III, and written by Keenan Scott II, does.
Performed by seven phenomenal actors, the play centers on a cross-section of Black men in Brooklyn—each occupying a slice of the borough that is ordinary and commonplace. But jarringly enough, these are not spaces we have seen Black men occupy, even when stories have been told about the neighborhoods they live in. There is an unfortunate novelty where there shouldn’t be.
Since Black masculinity is not a monolith, it deserves a play that contains its multitudes. Thoughts of a Colored Man starts off with that intent, but it falters quite a bit before the finish line.
First off, the play sets out to do too many things at once. With morality play-like stock characters—named Love, Happiness, Wisdom, Lust, Passion, Depression, and Anger—it’s sometimes easy to reduce a character to just one aspect of the many things they are and can be.
Bryan Terrell Clark, playing Happiness, is a rich, gay, Black man with a dog named Shadow, who is a part of the horde of gentrifiers who flock to Brooklyn. He is a Black man from the South who has had a comfortable childhood, nurturing parents, and has a cushy job. While it’s refreshing to see a Black man “thrive”, the play soon relegates the character to mouthing trite lines about not being “Black enough” and being stuck in between the many vague societal expectations from a man like him.
Standing in front of a multimedia screen that tells us he is in a hospital, Passion (Luke James, who sounds like God when he sings) welcomes his baby into the world and promises to be a father who is present. At once he dispels the absent Black father cliché but also, in unfortunate ways, reinforces it. This is a dead-end most of the characters walk into in spite of walking through (and taking us along) a road that is peppered with very poignant moments bursting with promise.
Wisdom (Esau Pritchett) runs a barber’s shop which is a sanctuary for all the neighborhood’s Black men, old and young. Passion’s newborn son is his grandchild, and in a heartwarming scene between the two generations of fathers, Wisdom hands down his learnings from the ancestors to Passion. It is a scene Black men have been denied by in most of our literature; a scene that is tender and moving. Nervous, excited fathers trembling at the potential of the future that lies ahead
The question that begs itself is, do all playwrights of all races so badly feel this need to create “balanced” narratives that they are tasked with showing “all sides” of the story? If not, why does a Black man feel this need to counter every moment of joy with one of abject sadness, or even death?
Does every happy, successful Black man need a dead Black man to balance things out? Of course, we live in a world where Black men’s deaths are easier, quicker, faster than their lives, but Black men deserve to be happy and drink their expensive coffees without being guilted and questioned.
This Broadway season, refreshingly, heralds a diverse slate, and there has been much writing on the “quality” of Black productions and debates about whether equity should come at the price of this arbitrary idea of quality.
Equity—true equity—is not about all races winning equally. In fact, this equity comes only when all races are allowed to fail at the same rate, to produce mediocre art and yet be given the space to be audacious enough to keep making art with expectations of finding an audience.
Thoughts of a Colored Man falters in many places, as most plays written and directed by debutantes often do. It now rests upon the industry to rise to its promises and hold the space for these Black men (and the many they will inspire) to keep making these mistakes till the day they don’t anymore.
There is a line in the play that goes, “Why settle in the dim light of the moon and not bask in the sun?” I can’t wait for Black theatre, and plays like Thoughts of a Colored Man to bask in that sun, and the only way to make that happen, is to wait this dim night out.
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