What defines Blackness? The idea that there might be a clear answer is absurd. But skin color is all it takes to land two diametrically opposed teenagers in the same jail cell. In the eyes of the law, at least, the connotations of race are obvious.
The laughable and at times deadly assumptions that attend Black men in America are the subject of “Hooded; or Being Black for Dummies,” an imaginative and occasionally metaphysical comedy of identity by the playwright Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm. The production at 59E59 Theaters has the playful mood and aesthetic of an insightful and ambitious school project, traversing thorny terrain with deceptive simplicity.
Marquis (Lambert Tamin) is splayed out on the ground playing dead, a pose he calls “Trayvonning,” after Trayvon Martin. “It’s a meme,” he explains, like planking or owling. Though his cellmate, Tru (Tarrence J. Taylor), doesn’t see the point of it, he’s not surprised to hear that Marquis was caught doing such nonsense with some white friends (in a cemetery, no less) and that only Marquis was arrested.
“Typical,” says Tru, who embodies certain conventions associated with Blackness — fly kicks, street smarts, bravado — that Marquis utterly lacks. Adopted by a white mother (Tjasa Ferme), an arrogant lawyer who easily springs both boys from the town slammer, Marquis lives in Achievement Heights, where he attends an all-white academy. His mom thinks Tru would be a good (that is, Black) influence on her son and invites him to live with them (assuming that Tru comes from poverty and lacks sufficient parental care).
Marquis’s classmates are caricatures of whiteness, affluence and ignorance — the girls are all blond and selfie happy, and his best friends, Hunter (Zachary Desmond) and Fielder (Henry James Eden), are troublemakers who make him the scapegoat. Marquis fits right in with his peers, with their retro-preppy uniforms and lofty life goals (costume design is by Latia Stokes). But if racial identity is a performance, Tru considers that Marquis doesn’t have the right script. So Tru writes one, called “Being Black for Dummies,” that winds up in the wrong hands.
“Hooded” demonstrates a voraciousness for forms and ideas. Chisholm deploys an array of devices — scenes that reset and repeat, a light-up laugh sign — that disrupt the narrative rhythm and provoke indirect associations. Greek theater looms large (the set design, of deconstructed cardboard columns, is by Tara Higgins), and Chisholm engages with Nietzsche’s theory of tragedy to illustrate the duality inherent to his young Black characters. “There’s a little bit of Apollo and Dionysus in all of us,” Marquis tells Tru. (In case you couldn’t tell, Marquis is the kind of teenager who reads Nietzsche in bed.)
It’s a lot to pack into two hours, just as a dummy’s guide to being Black could hardly be contained between binder clips. “Hooded,” presented by Undiscovered Works, is evidence of a provocative and spirited writer whose inkwell overflows onto the page. The play’s exploration of race as a kind of tragic pageantry suits its current form, but there’s more style and substance here than ultimately coheres into a convincing theatrical argument.
The director, George Anthony Richardson, gives the production a freewheeling assurance. It is pleasantly lo-fi, but for projections, designed by Hao Bai, that draw wry inspiration from European art, like the schoolyard that resembles Edvard Munch’s expressionist painting. The adult actors play their teenage characters with a touch of exaggeration, suggesting both the volatile eagerness of youth and that Chisholm is interested in the origins and politics of self-presentation.
“I am Black, and so whatever I do is acting Black,” Marquis tells Tru. “Or not. Or whatever!” he says, growing flustered. As with any signifier, meaning is determined by the beholder as much as by the object itself. The question isn’t what defines Blackness, but who.
Hooded; or Being Black for Dummies
Through July 3 at 59E59 Theaters, Manhattan; 59e59.org. Running time: 1 hour 55 minutes.