In the first scene of Mosaic Theater’s latest production, Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies, playing on H Street through February 19, you’re a little unsure if you’re supposed to laugh or grimace. We meet two young black men in a holding cell, Marquis (played by the wonderful Keith L. Royal Smith), and Tru (played by the charming Jeremy Keith Hunter). We learn that Marquis, a square prep schooler from suburban Maryland, was picked up on trespassing after being caught “Trayvonning,” the surreal real-life meme of kids posing like the slain teenager Trayvon Martin, in an empty cemetery. A “LAUGH” marquee lights up intermittently as we learn this story.
Don’t get it twisted – Hooded is a comedy of sorts. Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm’s play deals with the nuances of being black in 21st century America. And while the laugh marquee may seem inappropriate at times, it gives the audience permission to laugh and engage with the story of Tru and Marquis during the one-hour-and-40-minute run, while at the same time thinking critically about what’s funny and what isn’t. It’s a juxtaposition that recalls the opening line of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s poem, “We Wear the Mask.”
“We wear the mask that grins and lies.”
We follow Marquis and Tru’s reluctant friendship as Tru, the savvy Baltimorean, takes Marquis under his wing after he determines that Marquis needs to reconnect with what it means to “be black.” He creates for him a guide that ties back to the title of the play, Being Black for Dummies, a Trapper Keeper manifesto on identity. Tru warns that the guide falling into the wrong hands could lead to dangerous consequences, something we learn from a humorous and uncomfortable code-switching performance from Dylan Morrison Myers as Hunter, one of Marquis’ white schoolmates.
We also meet Marquis’ mother, a well-meaning, if not incredibly prejudiced left-leaning, white lawyer, who is beyond thrilled at the idea of her adopted son finally having a “cultural friend.” If you didn’t know what a microaggression was before, you’ll definitely understand it by the end of Hooded. Chisholm’s debut work isn’t afraid to hold up a mirror to his theatergoing audience.
Hooded is a wonderful melding of 21st century pop culture, code-switching, current events, hip-hop music, philosophy and Greek tragedy. By the end, you’re left wondering which characters were real, and if what happened was all imagined by our protagonists. One thing is certain, Hooded stays with you. It’s a play that will leave you thinking long after you’ve finished seeing it.
Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies runs through February 19 at Atlas Performing Arts Center. Tickets start at $20.
Sprenger Theatre at Atlas Performing Arts Center: 1333 H St. NE, DC; 202-399-7993; www.mosaictheater.org