Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay


Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies
The Custom Made Theatre Co.
Review by Patrick Thomas | Season Schedule

Also see Patrick's reviews of It's Only a Play, Vietgone, and Transitionsand Jeanie's review of The Realistic Joneses


Peter Alexander, Jesse Franklin Charles Vaughn,
and BE Rivers

Photo by Jay Yamada
Young men and women of color face a vast range of challenges, especially those living in the United States, where the stain of racism is still far too prominently displayed. In seeking guidance on how to navigate a world where the level of melanin in one's skin impacts opportunities for education and employment—not to mention interactions with law enforcement—most black and brown kids can turn to their parents and families who have already experienced many of the indignities American culture inflicts upon them.

Most. But not all. In The Custom Made Theatre Co.'s Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies, Marquis (Jesse Franklin Charles Vaughn) is a young black man being raised by white, upperclass parents in an exclusive suburb, fittingly called Achievement Heights. He attends a prep school, Achievement Heights Academy, proudly wears his uniform, and has his life fully planned out: college, Harvard Law, partnership in a top law firm. But he has no one to teach him the ins and outs of being black.

Enter Tru (Tre'Vonne Bell), whom Marquis meets on a bench in a police station after Marquis has been detained for trespassing in a cemetery. He and his two classmates, Hunter (Peter Alexander) and Fielder (Max Seijas), were there taking pictures of Marquis as he was "Trayvoning," posing as the dead Trayvon Martin, with a can of sweet tea, and a bag of Skittles nearby, planning to post the pictures online to participate in this odd, but real, social media meme. Fittingly, Hunter and Fielder got away, for when the boys scattered, the cops zeroed in on Marquis, letting the white boys escape.

When Marquis' mom (Jessica Risco) shows up at the precinct, she flexes her white privilege to spring both boys, and—perhaps to help expiate her liberal guilt—invites Tru to spend the night, assuming Tru's mom is single and working multiple jobs to keep the family afloat. (Which, sadly, turns out to be true.) Tru thinks "this some Blind Side-type shit," but takes Marquis under his wing, passing on his knowledge (such as it is; both boys are 14) about how to be black in America. This education will alter Marquis' relationships—with his mother, his friends, with the girls at school—some for better, some for good.

Playwright Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm has created a set of interesting, if somewhat underdeveloped, characters. But what's at stake for them is too vague for us to truly care. Does Marquis' detainment threaten his plans for the Ivy League? Is Tru in danger of going to prison? What motivated Hunter to complete his story arc in the fashion he did?

Chisholm also uses the technique of replaying scenes (or elements of scenes) multiple times, with slightly different changes in dialogue or action. This was used to great success by Abi Morgan in Splendour, showing the same experience from different points of view, which increased the richness of the story and the depth of the characterizations. Here, however, I felt the repetitions added little value. The dialogue is phrased somewhat differently, but the overall effect remains the same.

Celeste Martore's scenic design is excellent. Rectilinear shapes in white or mildly reflective surfaces create a sense of a future still to be written by two boys, but also claustrophobia and paranoia. (A live feed of the performers, from a camera positioned directly above the stage, is often projected onto set elements.) Director Lisa Marie Rollins makes good use of the space Martore has created, and keeps the pace sprightly.

Jessica Risco gives a wonderful performance as Debra, Marquis' mom. Her maternal swagger and namedropping power displays (which she believes are charmingly hidden behind a megawatt smile and gym-toned physique) are marvelous to behold. Both Bell and Vaughn have the intensity of their characters down, but need to express the gangly physicality of the early teen years more. As Prairie, Meadow and Clementine, Delaney Corbitt, Ari Lagomarsino and Rebecca Hodges have fun playing a snarky-but-still-sincere teen trio of besties. But we can sometimes tell they're having fun with it, smiling at what are jokes to us but shouldn't be to them, instead of losing themselves in their roles. The same is true when Peter Alexander, who plays Hunter, attempts to "be" black. "My bad, my bad. We good, G?"

Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies raises a raft of important issues, and addresses them with both humor and insight. Playwright Chisholm clearly loves his characters, and wants us to love them, too. If so, he ought to give them a better story.

Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies, through March 31, 2018, at The Custom Made Theatre Co., 533 Sutter Street, San Francisco CA. Shows are Thursdays-Saturdays at 8:00pm, with matinees Saturdays at 2:00pm. Tickets range from $32-$45, and are available at www.custommade.org.


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