by Beki Pineda

HOODED OR BEING BLACK FOR DUMMIES – Written by Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm; Directed by Betty Hart.  Produced by the Aurora Fox Arts Center (9900 East Colfax, Aurora) through February 10.  Tickets available at 303-739-1970 or aurorafox.org.

Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm is making a mark for himself in the theatre world for dealing with the issue of racism in America with confrontational humor.  To explain:  that’s basically jokes or situations or dialogue that makes white folks go “Can they really say that?” while laughing.  He professes that he calls upon his own experiences as a Black man moving through today’s cultural environment with caution and putting his anger into his work.  He went to the same high school as Michael Brown, the Black student killed by a white police officer in Ferguson, Missouri.  That really put a face on the violence for him and informed several of his plays since then (BR’ER COTTON, BLACK LADY AUTHORITY, and P.Y.G. OR THE MISEDUMACATION OF DORIAN BELL). HOODED, which opened in Washington, D.C. only two years ago, is having its Denver premiere at the Fox this month.

Two boys meet in a holding cell after one was picked up for trespassing in a cemetery (after his two White companions ran off) and the other for unspecified “loitering.”  Marquis (AJ Voliton) is an adopted son with a White family while Tru (Randy Chalmers) is a street smart loner from Baltimore.  Marquis’ mother (Jacqueline Garcia) comes to retrieve him and ends up taking Tru into her custody as well.  She is so happy that her son has a new “cultural” friend and insists he stay with them.  Both boys recognize the “Blind Side” connection but agree that Sandra Bullock is way hotter than Marquis’ Mom.  Tru decides that his new friend has lost his blackness and devises a manual for achieving a new level of awareness of how to maneuver in a White world as a Black man.

This is a long one act (100 minutes) so there is no Act I and II, but once the Being Black for Dummies book arrives, the whole situation begins to take a darker turn (no pun intended).  An interracial romance blossoms fueled by curiosity and hormones; one of Marquis’ impressionable classmates finds the manual and decides that he too can become Black which does not have the humorous outcome you hope for.  While friendship blossoms, the problems remain the same and soon we find the boys sharing yet another holding cell.

A curtain speech is given by a Black police officer (Laurence Curry) who explains that he doesn’t care if we leave our phones on and take pictures.  He warns that there are laugh lights that flash when it’s OK to laugh at a joke we may think goes over the line.  If we laugh any other time, then we are racist.  The lights, enhanced with a laugh track, flash quite a bit at the beginning of the show, especially on unfunny lines but gradually flash less and less as the humor dies and reality sets in.

This cast does an amazing job with the script.  Randy Chalmers as the wise beyond his years Tru warms the stage with his personality.  Knowing Randy to be a soft spoken gentleman, it was fun to see him cut loose and let his “bad” self out.  Relative newcomer AJ Voliton has a nerdy charm that fits his character well.  He is impatient, disbelieving, needy and sweet in great measures as we watch his development.  He never quite makes it all the way to acceptable “Black,” but he also never succumbs to the pull of becoming White either.  Laurence Curry’s  Black policeman doesn’t like kids of either color.  In addition to playing the smooth talking lawyer Mom, Jacqueline Garcia also becomes one of the female students at Achievement Academy, Marquis’ preppy school.  Adeline Mann and Tara Kelso are Clementine and Meadow, the tempting White girls while Drew Hirschboeck and John Hauser are the “friends” who abandon and ridicule Marquis behind his back.

There is a back story involving the appearances of Dionysus and Apollo that added nothing new and interesting to the story for me.  I could have done without those scenes and focused more on the attempts by Hunter, the White student who tries to assimilate a new personality.  A 1961 movie, BLACK LIKE ME, followed a Southern white man who passed as a Black to study how the races were treated differently.  It would have been interesting to see how Hunter’s efforts to become Black with a White face changed him.

I applaud Chisholm’s efforts to shine a light on the current state of racism in America by using the platform available to him.  Watching the SAG awards later in the evening, I could also not help applauding Alan Alda’s words as he accepted his Lifetime Achievement Award from his peers.  He stated, “When we get a chance to act, it’s our job, at least in part, to get inside a character’s head and to search for a way to see the life from that person’s point of view, another person’s vision of the world. And then to let an audience experience that. It may never be more urgent to see the world through another person’s eyes than when the culture is divided so sharply. Actors can help, at least a little, just by doing what we do … So my wish for all of us is: Let’s stay playful, let’s have fun and let’s keep searching. It can’t solve everything, but it wouldn’t hurt.”  Chisholm’s play does just that – let’s us look inside another person’s vision of the world in a playful way in an attempt to make things better.

A WOW factor of 9!!