The audience for the play “Hooded or Being Black for Dummies” isn’t sure if the man in uniform looking up to them is addressing them as patrons or viewers when he sternly instructs them to pay attention to a sign above the stage that says “laugh.”
“It’s always sort of been a character,” says playwright Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm of the “laugh” sign. “I’m always trying to keep the audience off-balance with my work. When people go into a show thinking they know what it’s going to be about, what they get out of it is pretty limited.”
In “Hooded,” two teenagers cross paths in a holding cell. Tru (Brent Grimes) expects rough treatment by the police, especially from the officer we meet first, Officer Borzoi (Robert Hart). Marquis (Jalen K. Stewart) insists his arrest is an easily rectified mistake. After all, he was only “Trayvoning” with his friends, lying face down on the ground in his hoodie with a pack of Skittles and a bottle of Arizona iced tea sitting just out of reach.
They are miles apart — Tru is the child of a Black single mother barely getting by in the city, and Marquis has white adoptive parents and affluent, suburban private school friends. Eventually, they become achingly alike: Black and subject to the same prejudices, even from each other. Tru pushes and Marquis pulls, all the way to the type of disaster that can come with illumination.
“They’re both halves of me,” Chisholm says.
The play, presented by the Echo Theater Company, mirrors his dark sense of humor, Chisholm says. That’s partially what drove his decision to add the “laugh light” — a television staple — to the show. The sign also offers guidance and challenges the audience, some of whom did follow instructions when the light went on.
“I ultimately realized it was causing people in the audience to question other people in the audience,” he says. “So a white audience member may not think the joke is funny at all, but the Black people are laughing and so it just creates this conversation of, ‘How am I inside of this joke and why do I have the ability to laugh at this? And why aren’t they laughing?’
“So sometimes [the laugh light is] undercutting, sometimes it is a real joke.”
Chisholm, whose play subverts race and class, then has a light-bulb moment of his own.
“Why does this play that I wrote five years ago feel like I wrote it yesterday? I would love for it to be a museum piece that you could set in space and play with, you know, like they do Shakespeare,” he says. “It feels weird to say I hope my play becomes irrelevant, but I kind of do.”
‘Hooded or Being Black for Dummies’
Where: Atwater Village Theater, 3269 Casitas Ave., Los Angeles
When: Fridays, Saturdays, and Mondays at 8 p.m. Sundays at 4 p.m. Through April 18.
Contact: (310) 307-3753, https://www.echotheatercompany.com/contact-us/
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