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‘Thoughts of a Colored Man’ Broadway Review: A Gripping Look at Black Masculinity in the Barbershop and Beyond

Seven men tell very different stories in Keenan Scott II’s powerful new drama

Playwright Keenan Scott II doesn’t take long with his play “Thoughts of a Colored Man” to settle into an extended scene set in a Brooklyn barbershop, where all seven men of this remarkable ensemble have gathered to talk and brainstorm. Until then, Scott has treated us to a few short set pieces that perform very much like the kinds of monologues actors write and perform in their acting classes.

These short speeches don’t make for the most promising introduction to the lives of the seven men featured in “Thoughts of a Colored Man,” which opened Wednesday at Broadway’s Golden Theatre, after its world premiere in 2019 at Syracuse Stage. The barbershop scene, however, brings them all together to create a mashup of arguments, personalities, disagreements, friendships, backgrounds and conflicts that grip the attention immediately and don’t let up for the next 90 minutes.

Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, beautiful women and gentrification of the Brooklyn neighborhood are the major topics of conversation at this barbershop, and more than one character objects to the money and the attitude, among other things, that white people are bringing with them. Surprisingly, there’s one customer (Bryan Terrell Clark), new to the neighborhood, who sees the invasion of all that new money and energy as a good thing. His comments don’t win him any new friends among a group of men who clearly share a past together. But his controversial take on gentrification is tolerated. Barely.

When the subject switches to women, specifically “ass or titties,” it’s a different matter. Rich white people is one thing, the opposite sex very much another. When the newcomer responds with the word “breasts,” the schism between him and the others goes from a wide divide to something that nearly atomizes the barbershop. And as performed here under the sharp direction of Steve H. Broadnax III, the moment triggers a gleeful eruption of acknowledgement regarding one man’s dire social predicament.

A surprise discovery of a character’s sexual orientation is also featured in another new play, Martyna Majok’s “Sanctuary City”; the disclosure there is delayed and staged for shock value. But the team behind “Thoughts of a Colored Man” handle the reveal for supreme comic effect. It’s a big, splashy moment, punctuated by Ryan O’Gara’s lighting design, that literally stops the action.

What’s subtle and more telling is the aftermath. While Clark’s character continues to speak to the other men — most notably, he clashes with a grocery store worker (Forrest McClendon) over economic opportunities and income bracket — this gay Black man never becomes part of The Group. He is quietly absent for the play’s other big set piece, near the end, where the men stand in line to buy high-end sneakers, a beautifully written scene that alternately mocks, condemns and justifies the high price of athletic footwear and the status they evoke. Here, Tristan Mack Wilds (“The Wire,” “90210”) is especially strong as the athlete turned coach turned angry man.

The play’s high point, however, comes between these two ensemble scenes. Inhabiting the same stage but different spaces, thanks again to O’Gara’s unique lighting design, McClendon and the actor Da’Vinchi, playing a testosterone-driven teenager, recall the respective fathers they never knew. Again, the writing is powerful. The acting is a master class in contrasts between Da’Vinchi, who simply breathes his character, and McClendon, who is all kinetic technique. In other words, Da’Vinchi is the smoke to McClendon’s burning fire. They make for must-see theater.

Scott mixes it up elsewhere too. He uses the haunting songs of Te’La and Kamauu to shape the character of a new father (Luke James, in gorgeous singing voice) and poetry to express the aspirations of a young artist (the extremely empathetic Dyllon Burnside).

Only the character of the barbershop owner (Esau Pritchett) comes off as more type than man. Pritchett is a force of nature, possessing one of those cavernous basses that render superfluous the job of any sound designer (Mikaal Sulaiman for this production). In the movies, he would be cast to play the voice of God. His is a gift that emphasizes Scott’s failure to make the character anything other than a concept of virtue.

It’s best not to read this play’s program, or the rest of this review, for that matter. Scott doesn’t give his characters proper names; rather, he denotes each of them with a different word, one that describes a state of being. For those who don’t study the program beforehand, it makes for a late and stunning reveal.