The title of Mixed Blood Theatre’s current series of shows, Prescient Harbingers, doesn’t exactly scream, “three of the most exciting plays you’ll see this season.” Don’t let the stiff title put you off, though. Take the opportunity to see these urgent, entertaining productions.
All written by renowned black male playwrights, the three works presented in repertory are very different, but complementary. Identity and narrative are common threads. In all three pieces, white people try to tell the stories of black lives and come up lacking. Sometimes the results are comic. They’re always tragic.
Gloria (2015), written by Branden Jacobs-Jenkins and directed by Lavina Jadhwani, begins as a dark comedy about publishing-industry office politics. Three cynical young magazine employees (Kathryn Fumie, Colleen Lafeber, and Tom Reed) pick on an intern (William Thomas Hodgson) and two long-suffering older colleagues (Bonni Allen and Ernest Briggs). When disaster strikes, they find themselves competing to produce the definitive tear-jerking book about the tragic losses at a workplace they actually hated.
Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm’s Hooded (2017), directed by Thomas W. Jones II, has the alternate title Being Black for Dummies. That’s the name of a handwritten guide the character Tru (Nathan Barlow) creates for his friend Marquis (Hodgson), a black teen who was adopted by a white family and raised in a wealthy Baltimore suburb. The play, a searing commentary on feel-good fish-out-of-water sitcoms like Diff’rent Strokes and The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, finds Marquis discovering that his African-American identity is something he can’t ignore—and his white peers certainly never will.
Hype Man (2018), a “break beat play” by Idris Goodwin, takes us inside a recording studio. Director Shawn LaCount leads a production with three riveting performances: Michael Knowlton as rapper Pinnacle, Kadahj Bennett as hype man Verb, and Rachel Cognata as the duo’s beatmaker.
When Macklemore raps about white privilege, Pinnacle is the guy he's trying not to be: a white hip-hop performer who doesn't want to talk about race, preferring to emphasize his own hustle and his solidarity with his bandmate Verb, who's black. A racially-motivated police shooting inspires Verb to take action, challenging Pinnacle to level up.
The three plays are all challenging in both theme and tone, and these artists absolutely command the material. A handful of actors, all strong, overlap between Hooded and Gloria. In Hooded, a remarkable Hodgson takes Marquis on a gut-wrenching journey. Fumie is absorbing as a chatty, condescending writer in Gloria, while in Hooded, she precisely portrays a schoolgirl who's ignorant but not inhuman.
There are two remaining chances to see all three plays in single-day succession (you can also see them individually). Mixed Blood calls them a "crazy-brilliant seven-hour theater extravaganza." As Verb could attest, just because it's hype doesn't mean it's not true.