We have a lot to learn

By John Lyle Belden

Understanding being black in America is not something that one “history month” a year can cover. But at least now, we have the textbook. Fonseca Theatre Company presents “Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies” by Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm, directed by Ben Rose.

Marquis seems to be a typical 14-year-old: doing well in school, hanging out with friends, noticing girls. But when his attempt at the latest internet fad lands him in a police station holding cell for trespassing, he finds himself with someone who sees him as anything but normal. Tru, the cellmate,  appears to be what most would picture a black youth to be, and he wonders why Marquis isn’t. Let the lessons begin.

Chinyelu Mwaafrika plays Marquis, bright-faced and naive, and despite his dark skin, a boy so “white” he needs the guidance of a “magical Negro” — the role Joshua Short as Tru takes on with gusto, complete with penning the titular guide. Yet, his character is more human than film trope, always toying with our and the other characters’ expectations. 

The only other African American in the cast is Warren Jackson as police Officer Borzoi; it is left to the audience to decide if he is an Uncle Tom collaborator with the establishment or a committed law officer with a realistic view of misbehaving young men (which you believe, or to what extent a mix of the two, no doubt says more about your own beliefs and biases).

We soon meet Marquis’s adoptive mother, Debra (Mara Lefler), embodying the well-meaning liberal who is blind to her own racial insensitivity. The next day, at private high school Achievement Prep, we meet Marquis’s classmates and best friends, Hunter and Fielder (Patrick Mullen and James Banta), as well as the girls clique of Meadow (Ivy Moody) and her disciples Prairie (Lefler) and Clementine (Dani Morey), who has a crush on Marquis.

All this — plus plenty of jibes at our meme-driven, eyes-on-phones, culture — lead to a lot of hilarious situations. But, as Rose says: It’s all funny, until it’s not. For instance, the opening scenes deal with the hot online trend of “Trayvonning” — a joke frequently repeated until its uncomfortable aspects are smoothed over. But it also has you primed for the gut-punch of the very final scene.

There are lessons for us throughout this production, starting with a slide show that runs while we take our seats in the intimate confines of Indy Convergence. Tru is a fount of wisdom, both in what he says and what he writes. In addition, we get a funny take on the young white man who takes on hip-hop culture too wholeheartedly.

Jackson and Banta also play mythical characters Apollo and Dionysus. The latter calls on Marquis to enjoy the trappings of white privilege, but hooded and African-garbed Apollo whispers a more vital truth to him.

Hearing of the violent death of an unarmed black person makes us wonder how such tragic circumstances could come about. No one should die for a handful of Skittles, yet they do. One of the lessons of “Being Black for Dummies” is that sometimes just putting up your hands is not enough.

What lesson will you take from this powerful play?

Performances run through Dec. 2 at Indy Convergence, 2611 W. Michigan. Get information and tickets at fonsecatheatre.org.

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IRT drama sees current struggles through prism of famous poem

By John Lyle Belden

Omari is in trouble. He (young black student) lashed out at a (white) teacher, shoving him violently. This is Omari’s “third strike,” and aside from expulsion from his private school, he could face charges. This is a worst nightmare come true for his mother, Nya, an inner-city teacher who sees first-hand the path that young African-Americans too often take from school to prison, known as the “Pipeline” — the name of this play by Dominique Morisseau now on stage at Indiana Repertory Theatre.

This is a play about issues, but more importantly it is a play about people. Though there is a sense it takes place in New York, Morisseau cautions it is truly set in “any inner city environment where the public school system is under duress.” But this is the only point that is vague. To better show what happens to youths like him, she has crafted Omari, Nya and the others in this drama as specific individuals with real struggles who won’t find an easy answer within 90 minutes on the stage.

Omari, played with sincere charm and and a frantic uncertainty by Cole Taylor, has his reasons for what he did, but no one understands — including, to some extent, him. The question of what happens next bears down on him like Sisyphus’ stone.

Jasmine, Omari’s friend and schoolmate, played with an air of “real”ness by Renika Williams, is frustrated both at what is happening to him and her own experience of being regarded as little more than a token at Fernbrook Academy. She’s smart and ambitious, but misses her old neighborhood — she once muses of running away with Omari and writing a book about it, “Ghetto Love.”

Nya’s friend and fellow educator, Laurie — another excellent performance by Constance Macy — rails against the expectations of being the white woman to “save” the school, like Michelle Pfeifer in “Dangerous Minds.” As she approaches the end of her career, the pressures are becoming too much to bear.

Toussaint JeanLouis is Dun, a school security guard who likes to joke with the staff, but takes his thankless job very seriously.

Nya, “Ms. Joseph” to staff and students — a steely performance by Aime Donna Kelly — finds her educator’s tools for organization and control failing her in what seems a hurricane of circumstances. She is both angered and deeply saddened when others don’t trust her.

One of her lessons, shared with us all, is on the poem “We Real Cool” by Pulitzer-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks. The verse is printed in the play program, and is frequently repeated — its words projected on the walls. The poem’s meaning starts to hit home for Nya; she hears her son shout its lines in her head. Its last three words — “We – Die soon.” — crash upon her like a collapsing ceiling.

Finally, we meet Omari’s father, Xavier — played by Andre Garner with cocky confidence. He has it all figured out, and just needs Omari to get with the program, even if the boy hates him.

But as Xavier and Nya discover, just because you’re “woke” doesn’t mean you have all the facts.

The projected words are part of many brilliant audiovisual enhancements to the deceptively simple stage set, helping to place this drama in today’s world. Also, the story confronts our Youtube reality in which the mistakes we make are forever online, and going viral. Done in one movie-length act, the play’s flow and use of space help suggest its several settings but never release the tension — until the end, when Omari finally has his say.

And at that point, we are all ready to listen.

Directed by Raelle Myrick-Hodges, “Pipeline” is thought-provoking drama, solidly delivered, giving current events a human face. Performances are through Nov. 11 on the Upperstage at IRT, 140 W. Washington St. (just west of Circle Centre). Call 317-635-5252 or visit irtlive.com.