Attention Baltimore theatergoers — yes, you with the torn ticket stubs in your hand for “Thoughts of a Colored Man,” the poignant new play currently running at Baltimore Center Stage — you have no idea how powerful you are.
Your responses to Keenan Scott II’s theatrical tapestry of slam poetry, prose, music and dance about seven African American men living in a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood are being closely observed by the production’s creative team. They note when you are laughing. They note when you are bored. They note when you lean forward in your seats or flip through your programs.
And the cumulative effect of the audience’s reactions could result in changes to “Thoughts of a Colored Man” before its likely future run on Broadway.
In fact, those changes are already taking place.
“At one point, this show had eight characters,” said Brian Moreland, one of the show’s producers. “Now it has seven. For the Baltimore run, we added a whole new scene, new music and pages of dialogue.
“A Baltimore audience mimics a New York audience in being vocal about expressing its likes and dislikes. New work is hard, and we depend on audience feedback to help this play find its leanest and purest shape.”
The show, which is set in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, takes place during a single day. The play’s tag line — “One theme. Seven variations," — is a hint that “Thoughts of a Colored Man” lacks a conventional plot with a beginning, middle and end. Instead, the show consists of loosely related vignettes among a group of neighbors, former schoolmates and friends, who range in age from their late teens through their 60s.
The characters include a grocery store clerk who wonders how his life might have been different if he had taken that college scholarship, a gay man who feels compelled to pretend he’s straight while visiting the neighborhood barber shop and a teenager who struggles with being a child of rape.
Broadway might seem an unlikely destination for these guys — or the 32-year-old playwright who created them. Scott entered theater in a roundabout way through Washington’s slam poetry scene. His previous work has been produced by mostly community-based or university troupes.
But Scott has an innately good ear that’s been honed by years of writing and reciting verse. Despite his prolific use of metaphors and internal rhymes, he writes dialogue that sounds as though it’s being spoken by real people. He creates likable characters the audience wants to get to know better. And he knows how to write realistic scenes of urban life about, for instance, the sneaker fanatics who line up around the block while awaiting the release of the newest Air Jordans.
Plenty of promising scripts never receive a full production on any stage, let alone one located in America’s theater capital. But the stars seem to be coming into alignment to bring “Thoughts of a Colored Man” to the Big Apple.
Enough money has been raised to rent a fancy theater and pay the cast, according to Moreland — a man who has a show on Broadway running now, and two more opening this spring.
He said he’s just waiting for the right Broadway theater for Scott’s play to become available. In the meantime, he’s assembled a team of actors and designers who could paper their walls with their Tony Award nominations and press clippings.
Jerome Preston Bates, who originated the role of Floyd Barton in the world premiere of August Wilson’s “Seven Guitars," delivers a portrait of a barber and patriarch that is equal parts salt and molasses.
Actor Forrest McClendon intentionally over-enunciates every syllable to create a portrait of a sweet nerd who should be a member of the pocket protector brigade instead of pushing grocery carts.
And baby-faced Ryan Jamaal Swain demonstrates here (as he does in the hit FX television show “Pose”) that innocence is not synonymous with naivete. It’s fascinating to watch conflicting feelings flit across the actor’s face as his characters struggle to hang on to their idealism.
And there’s another promising portent — a much-anticipated revival of Ntozake Shange’s “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf" opened Tuesday off-Broadway. Coincidentally or not, the two plays share a common costume designer (Toni-Leslie James,) and, if “Colored Girls” transfers to Broadway, they’ll share a common producer (Ron Simons.)
Scott’s work has deep and obvious resonances to Shange’s 1976 drama, which he first viewed while attending Frostburg State University.
If “Thoughts of a Colored Man” eventually makes it to New York — and Moreland is confident it will — it will be the first time in 14 years since Center Stage has played a role in shaping a Broadway-bound production.
Some (August Wilson’s “Radio Golf” in 2005) have been smashes. Others (“The Triumph of Love” in 1997) have been crashes; “Triumph” ran for just 85 performances.
* Scott seems to have modeled the structure of “Thoughts of a Colored Man” after the framework that Shange pioneered in her 1976 work. But unlike the earlier drama, or “choreopoem,” Scott’s play lacks the connective tissue that could weave together his men’s stories and elevate them to the level of social critique. “Thoughts of a Colored Man” isn’t about gentrification, or class differences or the impact of crime on the black community, though the show contains elements of all of these.
* The playwright may inadvertently be doing his characters a disservice by giving them the names of emotions such as Anger, Passion and Depression. Scott may be attempting to emphasize his characters’ universality, as Shange does by naming her women after colors (“The Lady in Red.”) But in Scott’s play the device comes across as didactic, because emotions (unlike colors) often are attached to moral judgments. That’s a shame, because the men that Scott creates are far too multi-faceted to be reduced to a single label.
* Finally — and I’m wording this carefully to avoid spoilers — a scene late in the show cries out to be slowed down. Something momentous has just occurred, and the audience needs time to absorb it. Right now, that scene has the approximate emotional weight of every other scene and that feels wrong. We don’t even get to see the other characters react.