In the breathtakingly on-point new comedy “Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies,” one of the two young black men sharing a jail cell was trespassing while “Trayvoning,” the real-life meme of kids lying down like the slain teen Trayvon Martin. A “laugh” sign hangs over the stage and lights up at inappropriate times.
The edgy script seems like it might be all over the place, but playwright Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm has a firm hand on the steering wheel as he careens full speed into stereotypes and race-based crises. Even with its fusillade of the n-word, the bracingly timely show is as user-friendly as its sarcastic title promises. This premiere from Mosaic Theater Company frequently bursts with the kind of laughs that have a “wow” underneath as the characters stride onto dangerous turf.
It starts with the two teens in jail: Marquis is a bookish prep-school student being raised by his adoptive white mother, while Tru is a streetwise kid who fears that Marquis is too “white.” The strokes are as broad as a standup routine or sketch comedy as Chisholm outlines the differences between the kids and as Marquis’s liberal mom (played by Jennifer Mendenhall in a silky sendup) fawns over Tru, gets him released from jail and brings him home.
“Your first ‘cultural’ friend,” she coos to Marquis as she brings out the sleeping bags.
The kids are mirror images in chunky black glasses, only with Marquis (a wonderfully apprehensive Keith L. Royal Smith) in the nerdy school uniform of Achievement Heights and Tru (the effortlessly entertaining and commanding Jeremy Keith Hunter) in expensive ruby sneakers. Chisholm weaves the kids back and forth as they swap clothes and ideas, finding common ground between Marquis’s idol (Nietzsche) and Tru’s (Tupac).
When they hit the otherwise all-white schoolyard, peopled by teens named Meadow and Prairie and Hunter, Tru can see that Marquis needs a guide to getting girls and to getting on as a black man. So he writes the book of the play’s title, which gives Chisholm plenty of fodder for punchy jokes. It also spins in unexpected directions, especially when the manual falls into the hands of an impressionable young white student played by Dylan Morrison Myers in a nervy “code switching” performance.
The pace is light and quick and the tone is consistently thoughtful, thanks to a savvy cast that easily takes to Chisholm’s script of goading taunts and electric questions. Smith and Hunter play off each other splendidly, smacking lines as rapidly as ping-pong shots but also building a warm, even brotherly rapport. The naivete that Madeline Burrows brings to Clementine, the white girl who’s interested in Marquis, is both fetching and alarming, while Frederick Strother supplies a weary attitude to the cynical black cop who isn’t interested in giving the kids a fair shake.
“Hooded” has a couple of things in common with Joshua Harmon’s “Bad Jews,” the runaway Studio Theatre hit of recent seasons. “Bad Jews” likewise probed fraught history and modern identity with knowing irreverence, and it was directed by Serge Seiden, then with Studio and now with Mosaic. Chisholm’s impressive script has a wild, fantastical streak, but mostly it’s loaded with barbed observations, and Seiden’s production at the Atlas Performing Arts Center is so consistently assured that it has you leaning in for the full hour and 40 minutes. Like “Bad Jews,” the show startles you with its confrontational sense of humor and shakes you up at the end with dread. As the title promises, it’s a Black Lives Matter play.
“Hooded” is not the perfect plot machine that “Bad Jews” is; you can fight with some of it. I resisted one of the big tragic conclusions, and some viewers may be uncomfortable with the absence of black female voices. That’s more than fine: Chisholm has written the kind of idea-rich play that makes you want to hear lots of reactions afterward.
It also fits perfectly as the conclusion of Mosaic’s daring triptych on growing up, which began with Kirsten Greenidge’s girl-powered “Milk Like Sugar” — “Hooded’s” opposite number gender-wise — and then looked at homeless LGBT youth in Philip Dawkins’s “Charm.” In only its second season, Mosaic is living up to its name, and Chisholm makes his mark powerfully.
“Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies,” by Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm. Directed by Serge Seiden. Set design, Ethan Sinnott; lights, Brittany Shemuga; costumes, Brandee Mathies; sound design, David Lamont Wilson. With Emma Lou Hebert and Josh Adams. About 1 hour, 40 minutes. Through Feb. 19 at Atlas Performing Arts Center, 1333 H St. NE. Tickets $50-$60. Call 202-399-7993 or visit mosaictheater.org.