Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm’s “Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies” arrested audiences last season by making a whip-smart comedy around Trayvon Martin’s tragedy. That sounds irreverent, but it’s not: Chisholm writes with fury and indignation while making the show fresh, funny and entirely fearless. It was one of my top picks of the year, and watching Mosaic Theater’s revival with nearly all the original cast intact, I stand by it.
That’s despite the script’s blatant rough edges, like a grim “laugh” sign cuing audience responses and some awkward fantasy that has Apollo and Dionysus wrestling for the soul of our troubled high-school-age hero, Marquis. Chisholm makes us laugh naturally enough — there’s a Kanye West punchline that wasn’t there before — as prep-school Marquis meets streetwise Tru in a jail cell, where comically liberal Marquis’s white mom (he’s adopted) bails them both out and brings Tru home.
The ongoing joke is that Marquis’s mom, hilariously played to the presumptuous hilt by Marni Penning, and his white prep school (Achievment Heights) have pasteurized the black out of him. Tru will school Marquis — and again, there are definitely cliches along this path, as when Marquis stiffly freestyles his first rap as Tru shakes his head.
The script’s huge strength is the minute-by-minute surprise of Chisholm’s dialogue, acted with magnificent chemistry by Keith L. Royal Smith as Marquis and Jeremy Keith Hunter as Tru. It’s a split-personality show, an anatomy of divided identity: Marquis is into Nietzsche, and Tru says Tupac said it better. Smith and Hunter argue with complexity, clarity and the tight familiarity of siblings because Chisholm knows exactly how each figure stands his ground.
For all its flaws, which include a rather flatly functional design, “Hooded” seems terribly alive partly because it’s so aggressively about right now. That’s what was bracing about comedian Felonious Munk’s semi-autobiographical “Nothing to Lose (But Our Chains)” with Second City, too, and it’s also why I wasn’t as taken in by the wrathful history lessons of Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s “An Octoroon” and the Ars Nova production of “Underground Railroad Game” (both highly acclaimed). The theatrical polish is glossier on those shows, and there’s a level of grad-school finesse to their history-messing-with-our-minds construction. But for all their shock value — the lynching imagery in “Octoroon,” the sexual humiliation in “Railroad Game” — the judgment seems inevitable. History can seem like a comparatively safe space for writers to write.
The dramaturgy feels less elegant and literary in “Nothing to Lose” and “Hooded,” but they are also less remote. That’s not to say history is irrelevant — plainly, it’s not, as today’s news includes efforts to rename Jefferson Davis Highway in Alexandria — or that dramas grappling with slavery and the Civil War are in any way passe.
But it feels riskier to write straight to the moment. Chisholm’s play begins and ends with “Trayvoning,” the awful social media trend and the awful fact. The more that playwrights are encouraged to process the present, especially with voices as acute and lively as Chisholm’s and Munk’s, the sharper our theater will be.
Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies, by Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm. Directed by Serge Seiden. About 100 minutes. Through June 3 at the Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. $20-$65. 202-399-7993 or mosaictheater.org