Maybe that’s why Keenan Scott II — who spent a dozen painstaking years perfecting the play that officially opened Wednesday at Broadway’s Golden Theatre — identifies his characters by emotion, attribute or condition, rather than name. Love, Happiness, Wisdom, Lust, Passion, Depression and Anger is what they go by. This allegorical spectrum supports a handsome, virile framework intended to lift up and destigmatize.
Buoyed, too, by the direction of Steve H. Broadnax III and the crisp aesthetics of set designer Robert Brill and costume designers Toni-Leslie James and Devario D. Simmons, “Thoughts of a Colored Man” radiates with conviction. It’s feel-good entertainment on a mission.
There’s some predictable cover-all-the-bases earnestness in the effort to outline the range of feelings on Scott’s palette, but you can appreciate why that might be the case. It’s a long time coming for an enlightening and enjoyable Broadway outing like the 105-minute “Thoughts of a Colored Man,” and laying out these themes takes time, too.
The experiences of Black men is by no means a new subject for the theater. But the depth of their feelings has taken on a new urgency amid the Black Lives Matter movement and demands by artists who are people of color for more representation both on and offstage. Works such as “Thoughts of a Colored Man” and the recently opened “Lackawanna Blues” — Ruben Santiago-Hudson’s richly embroidered autobiographical monologue — feel as if they’re improving the expressive ventilation in the old houses of Broadway. Let’s hope these fans keep spinning.
Modeled on Ntozake Shange’s lyrical 1976 play, “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide/ When the Rainbow is Enuf,” “Thoughts of a Colored Man” both validates and beseeches. Intentionally emulating Shange, Scott divides poetry and prose monologues among seven actors. (Shange identified her seven as Lady in Red, Lady in Blue, et al.) Scott, who first participated in poetry slams as a teenager in Washington, sets his rhymes and vignettes in a Brooklyn neighborhood undergoing gentrification. The local barber shop — dramatized here with characteristic comic vivacity and overseen by the lovely actor Esau Pritchett as head barber and wise man — now vies with Whole Foods as a landmark.
The loose threads of the narrative allow characters to step in and out of the sketches and relate bits of their own biographies directly to the audience. One of the funniest sequences takes place in a line outside a store, as the men fuss over shoes while they wait to buy the latest Michael Jordan sneakers. Behind the actors on the spare set, Brill billboards the word “Colored” in giant letters, in a manner you might find in an art installation. The antiquated term seems a counterpoint to the men onstage, who can’t be easily, cursorily or collectively defined.
Anger, played terrifically by Tristan Mack Wilds (whom you might remember as a teen in HBO’s “The Wire”), is an athlete sidelined by injury who is now a coach; Depression, embodied with prickly irony by Forrest McClendon, is a supermarket worker who gave up his dreams to take care of his mother. Happiness is exuberant Bryan Terrell Clark as a gay finance exec who has moved into one of the neighborhood’s newly upscale buildings; Lust is portrayed by Da’Vinchi with all the casual smoothness of a young man with a one-track mind.
They, along with Dyllón Burnside (Love) and Luke James (Passion), perform with such a powerful sense of commitment to the project that you have to give over to the motivational vibe. I can’t begin to know the pressures — and pleasures — of being a Black man in America. But after “Thoughts of a Colored Man,” I at least know more about their passion, love, anger, lust, depression, happiness and wisdom.
Santiago-Hudson draws a more intimate and vividly detailed account of the coming of age of one man of color in “Lackawanna Blues,” the resonant solo piece (with guitarist Junior Mack) at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Broadway home, the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre. The program lists the 25 characters (and “countless other citizens”) Santiago-Hudson portrays with a marksman’s precision out of the actor-director’s own 1950s and 1960s story of growing up in a boardinghouse in Lackawanna, N.Y.
The gallery of hard-bitten personages and the mix of funny and sentimental subplots put you in mind at times of a novel by Dickens. But at the core of this piece, which Santiago-Hudson also wrote (and debuted off-Broadway two decades ago) is a valentine to the woman he calls Nanny, who cared for him when his own mother proved not up to the task.
It is the performer’s protean gifts that sustain “Lackawanna Blues,” which doubtless owes a debt to the disadvantaged domains conjured by August Wilson, in whose plays Santiago-Hudson was a standout — and especially in “Seven Guitars,” for which he won a Tony in 1996. Several performances of “Lackawanna Blues” have been canceled because of the actor’s back injury, but he has returned, and the run has been extended to Nov. 7.
Thoughts of a Colored Man, by Keenan Scott II. Directed by Steve H. Broadnax III. Lighting, Ryan O’Gara; sound, Mikaal Sulaiman; projections, Sven Ortel; music, Te’la and Kamauu. About 105 minutes. $72-$240. Golden Theatre, 252 W. 45th St., New York. 212-239-6200. telecharge.com.
Lackawanna Blues, written, performed and directed by Ruben Santiago-Hudson. Music, Bill Sims Jr.; set, Michael Carnahan; costumes, Karen Perry; lighting, Jen Schriever; sound, Darron L West. About 90 minutes. $72-$264. Through Nov. 7 at Samuel J. Friedman Theatre 261 W. 47th St., New York. 212-239-6200. telecharge.com.