By Jim Gilles
Los Angeles, CA (The Hollywood Times) 3/14/22 –
Last weekend was the premiere of a new play at the Atwater Village Theatre – Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies – presented by the Echo Theatre Company. Ahmed Best directs the Los Angeles premiere of Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies by rising-star playwright Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm. The play is an irreverent, darkly funny coming-of-age story that explores racial identity, privilege and pop culture with insight, passion and biting humor. The title alone gives a glimpse into the complex substance of the play, written by Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm. The show is a constant fluctuation of subtle comedy, clarity, political commentary, tragedy, and biting wit. The play is centered around Tru, played by Brent Grimes, and Marquis, played by Jalen K. Stewart, two young black men from different worlds whose paths cross in a holding cell. They are both being wrongfully held and exchange stories of how they got arrested, which Tru ultimately sums up as “Being while black.” Cleverly written and well-acted, the only challenge is believing that the actors are really 14-year-old boys who often talk like 20-year-olds.
The script deals with stereotypes, social stigmas, and the subtleties of racism that have become so ingrained in our society’s basic language and behavior that many people fail to recognize it. Tru and Marquis are themselves stereotypes. Tru (Brent Grimes) is a streetwise kid from the inner city, while Marquis (Jalen K. Stewart) is a prep school student who has “lost his Blackness.” Marquis and Tru are both 14-year-old Black boys, but they exist in two completely different worlds. Marquis is a book smart prep-schooler living in the affluent suburb of Achievement Heights, while Tru is a street savvy kid from deep within the inner city of Baltimore. Their worlds overlap one day in a holding cell after each has been arrested by the police for some minor infraction of the law. In Marquis’ case, he was caught trespassing into a cemetery at night, although his two male friends who were white ran away and avoided arrest. Tru is in a holding cell for some unspecified reason, but it seems that he too was at the wrong place at the wrong time and picked up by the police. Marquis was “Trayvon-ing”– a jarring meme-ification of a hate crime – in a graveyard) while Tru is there for “being while black.” A series of initially repetitious scenes sets a structural pattern that is picked up and dropped at will throughout.
In their initial dialogue, Tru and Marquis reveal the different worlds in which each one lives. Eventually Marquis’ mother Debra (Tasha Ames), who seems to also be a lawyer, shows up to get her adopted black son out of jail. Of course, the curious thing is that Marquis’ mother is a good-looking middle-aged white woman, who can argue her way out of any situation. After convincing the police to drop any charges against Marquis. When Marquis’ mother notices that Tru is in the same holding cell, she decides to plead his case and asks for his release to her protective custody as a lawyer. Less all this sounds too serious, the humor lies in the misunderstanding and preconceptions the characters have about race, skin color, life experience, socioeconomic standing and education.
When Tru reveals that his mother works nights and he seldom sees her, Marquis’ mother immediately assumes a set of standard “white” preconceptions about poor, black single mothers who work three jobs and have limited education. This is the beginning of a very funny set of experiences for both of the boys, as Marquis’ mother invites Tru to stay in her house and spend the night there (Baltimore being too far from tony Achievement Heights to go at night and his mother not being home). During that first night, we see Tru trying to take the measure of young Marquis, who seems to be far too “white” in his language, style, and choice of “white” friends from the pricey prep-school he attends.
Given this as the basic set-up of the play, we will see how Marquis’ domineering mother has already decided that Tru, who seems very intelligent although street-smart in an inner-city way, should attend the same prep-school as her adopted son Marquis. At Marquis’ school, we meet his typical white, jock friends, Hunter (Vincent Doud) and Fielder (Ezekiel Goodman), and the standard flock of white girls, Clementine (Betsy Stewart), Meadow (Clare Margaret Donovan), and Prairie (Tasha Ames). Tru shows up, having decided to take Marquis under his wing and uncover his suppressed “blackness.” Tru has little use for Marquis’ prep-school “white” buddies who seem remarkably dull, bordering on stupid. These characters are juxtaposed to three “white” blonde female teenagers who love to take selfies and seem clueless about their inherent racism – even though one of the girls, Meadow (Clare Margaret Donovan) is interested in dating Marquis.
The characters are in a constant debate about the definition of “blackness.” Marquis believes that because he IS black, how he acts can be called “acting black.” But Tru sees a brother in need of guidance and writes the manual “Being Black for Dummies” for Marquis to study and recapture who (Tru believes) he is supposed to be. Vincent Doud as Hunter is a white boy with black-envy. He sees Tru as cool and takes the manual, in hopes of making himself cool by learning to be black. Vincent Doug is outstanding in this scene. The absurdity of his attempts creates a good deal of comedy. Betsy Stewart’s character Meadow is smitten with Hunter and mistakes his different behavior as role-playing. But the scene takes a dark turn when Hunter comes upon the very real, internal conflict of who he is: Where does his societal persona end, and his true-self begin?
Philosophy comes into the dialogue quite often in the script. Tru and Marquis each have their own sources of inspiration, Tupac Shakur and Nietzsche, and discover that the very different men were saying virtually the same thing, in their own way: The subject of one’s true-self, what that means, and how that affects your place in the world. The play creates a perpetual state of duplicity for the audience. Each line and movement serves dual purposes to highlight a flaw and laugh at its absurdity, in various forms and themes, but all the while addressing the topic of being black in America.
At the beginning of the show, Officer Borzoi (Robert Hart) states that all cell phones should be left on and any calls answered because “this story is unimportant.” More pointedly though, he calls attention to a LAUGH sign suspended above the stage. Robert Hart instructs the audience to laugh whenever the sign is lit. And to never laugh, when it is not. Strother brandishes his baton any time the audience laughs out of place, which is often, highlighting the complicated ways in which our society interprets race humor and observational comedy that often teeters on the edge of racism. There is a very fine line, and the line is not straight.
Hooded, Or Being Black for Dummies is a dark comedy but it sheds light on our social predicaments about racial identity. A series of “Aha” moments and, at times, a well-deserved smack in the face. In the program, Director Ahmed Best perfectly describes the sensation the show creates: “The metaphor that comes to mind is a persistent midnight car alarm that you’re shocked to find you’ve been sleeping right through.”
Hooded premiered in 2017 in a Mosaic Theatre production at the Atlas Performing Arts Center in Washington D.C., winning the Helen Hayes Award. Chisolm’s other plays include P.Y.G., which he directed in its premiere at Washington D.C.’s Studio Theater, and Br’er Cotton, which had a critically acclaimed production by London’s Theatre 503 (nominee, Evening Standard Charles Wintour Award for Most Promising Playwright) and received an NNPN Rolling World Premiere. He was a finalist for the Inaugural Relentless Award and a part of the Pacific Playwrights Festival at South Coast Rep with Anacostia Street Lions. He developed Black Lady Authority at the Sundance Theater Lab and Black Dick at the O’Neill National Playwrights Conference. In Hollywood, Chisholm has written for a number of TV series and is currently developing his own show, the sci-fi dramedy Demascus, with AMC and Gran Via Productions.
Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies opens on Saturday, March 12, with performances continuing on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m.; Sundays at 4 p.m.; and Mondays at 8 p.m. through April 18. Tickets are $34 on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. All Monday night performances are pay-what-you-want. Atwater Village Theatre is located at 3269 Casitas Ave in Los Angeles, CA 90039. For reservations and information, call (310) 307-3753 or go to www.EchoTheaterCompany.com.