The Custom Made Theatre Co. educates audiences on Black identity with ‘Hooded’

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“Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies” by Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm is one hell of a comedy. Although Officer Borzoi (BE Rivers) introduces the show by jokingly telling the audience that laughing when the “laugh light” is off makes them racists, the audience grabbed their bellies throughout, heedless to the sign’s guidance.

Tru (Tre’Vonne Bell) and Marquis (Jesse Franklin Charles Vaughn) — both Black, both 14 — are undeniable foils to one another. While Marquis is a preppy, Nietzsche-loving bookworm, Tru is a boldly adventurous, Tupac-loving nonconformist. Marquis was adopted and raised by a white family in an affluent suburb. Tru hails from central Baltimore. Their journey together to discover Marquis’ “lost” Blackness reveals disturbing truths about prejudice in America.

Tru and Marquis embody the archetypes of book smart and street smart, respectively. Such polar opposites placed in the center of the story not only brings about a hilarious dynamic, it cleverly comments on the danger of not seeing the nuances of the in-between.

The undeniable platonic chemistry between Bell and Vaughn, coupled with the humorous, down-to-earth script, contributes significantly to the realism of the play. The entire play reads like a passionate, natural conversation. Even in moments of monologue, such as when Tru describes the effect of smelling his mother’s perfume, the script is truly makes its characters three-dimensional — there is more to them than it first reveals.

The pacing and timing of the actors’ verbalization and the witty, tongue-in-cheek banter make the show like a well-coordinated improv set. The actors bounce off each other, thriving on the energy provided by each character and the audience itself. As a result, the audience relied on the “laugh light” less as the show progressed, their laughter becoming more genuine and spontaneous.

All the more, the stage directions and clever prop use heightens tension through the powerful symbolism they provide. At one moment, when Marquis’ white mother Debra (Jessica Risco) offers Tru a glass of milk, her prior ignorant statements are manifested by the symbol of whitewashing without any verbalization needed. It’s in that moment that the brilliance of the script shines even without its praiseworthy, fast-paced wordplay, illustrated by the moment of absolute silence that follows.

The interaction between the audience and the actors is maximized by the scale of the stage, which minimizes the physical distance between the two. Despite the minimalist set design, the company uses the stage creatively — with overhead projectors creating character-oriented room details and indicating changes of location.

The structure of the plot is somewhat similar to that of “Barbecue,” a comical play presented by San Francisco Playhouse late last year. Both plays oscillate between a culturally “Black” space and a “white” one, navigating their implications for identity. Tru and Marquis could allegorically represent one persona: a Black man living in America, conflicted and confined by the ropes of his identity.

Throughout the show, the two leads argue over the cultural significance of their respective idols. Nietzsche once stated that sculpture is the most Apollonian of the arts while music is the most Dionysian of the arts — and a symbiotic relationship between the two is required to create either. In the play, philosophy equates to sculpture, while Tupac’s lyrics equate to music. These two mediums of art can be easily by synthesized to create an entirely new art category — poetry, which relies both on form and rhythm. Likewise, “Hooded” reads as pure poetry, brought to life by the talents and charisma of Bell and Vaughn.

Importantly, the play argues that “acting Black” is not the diametrical opposite of “acting white.” “Hooded” shows the danger of assuming that all Black people follow a set of rules and behaviors. In its characters’ revelation that Tupac and Nietzsche have the same philosophies, the play emphasizes the importance of cultural identity — an importance undermined by the white lens of history.

“Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies” will run at The Custom Made Theatre Co. through April 7.

Contact Sophie Kim at [email protected].