Hard lessons continue at Fonseca Theatre

By John Lyle Belden

The setting of the play “Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies,” by acclaimed playwright Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm, is “Today.” Says so right there in the program. So this examination of our understanding of race in early 21st Century America is taking place in 2020. Just add masks on all the characters – sadly, no need to change any of the story.

Fonseca Theatre Company brings back this drama from its first season (I wrote about it then, too), again directed by Ben Rose, in the wake of the real-world drama of this tumultuous summer. Rose noted that actor preparation took on a more serious tone this time, and he was grateful to also have Chinyelu Mwaafrika and Joshua Short return to star.

Marquis (Mwaafrika), a suburban teen from posh (mythical) Achievement Heights, outside Baltimore, has gotten caught up in the latest online challenge and is in a police holding cell for trespassing. His cellmate, Tru (Short), fits the conventional African-American stereotype, and is amazed that Marquis doesn’t. Eventually, Marquis’ adoptive limousine-liberal mom Deb (Megan Ann Jacobs) arrives to spring them from the clutches of Officer Borzoi (Keegan Jones). Tru then gets to experience Marquis’s world, with his nice home and all-white classmates at Achievement Preparatory Academy: jocks Hunter (Joseph Mervis) and Fielder (Maverick Schmidt), and top girls’ clique led by Meadow (Vicki Turner) with Prairie (Jacobs) and Clementine (Sarah Ault).

Seeing Marquis as “too White,” Tru fills a notebook with “Being Black for Dummies” in the hope of connecting him with his racial heritage. But the book falls into the wrong hands, with tragic results.

Meanwhile, Marquis dreams of visits by ancient gods – fair-skinned Dionysus (Schmidt), who wants him to take the easy life; and dark-skinned Apollo (Jones), who whispers to him a dark secret.

This show is spiced with a surprising amount of humor, and the production does include a “laugh light” to let you know when it’s safe to react without being racist. However, there are a lot of hard questions and uncomfortable discussions. Also, the characters make an embarrassing number of assumptions, including the fateful conclusions drawn by school Headmaster Burns (Mervis) that sound a lot like your “I’m not a racist, but…” friend when telling you the “truth” about a Black victim of a shooting. Thus does this fictional story connect solidly with our real world; Chisholm’s characters are each simultaneously flesh-and-blood and living metaphor. You know this person; you’ve met this person; you’ve seen this person on the news; you are this person.

The cast do a great job of communicating all this to us through their cloth masks, and with the intimate (yet with seating properly distanced) stage in the backyard of the FTC building, we even hear clearly when the mic-packs sputter. This was an important and enlightening drama already, and today it feels more vital to make the effort to experience. Fonseca staff even have nice masks available for a donation.

All performances are 8 p.m., continuing Saturday, Sunday (Aug. 22-23), and Thursday through Sunday, Aug. 27-30, at 2508 W. Michigan, Indianapolis. Details and tickets at fonsecatheatre.org.

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.