‘Thoughts of a Colored Man’: Critics find this new Broadway play to be ‘poetic’ but ‘uneven’

Back in February, the new play “Thoughts of a Colored Man” installed its marquee at the Golden Theatre, an encouraging sign almost a year into the coronavirus pandemic that the frost on Broadway was about to thaw. Keenan Scott II’s allegorical drama has finally arrived, debuting at the Golden on Oct. 13 under the direction of Steve H. Broadnax III.

Featuring an ensemble of seven actors – each representing a different emotion from happiness to depression, love, anger, and beyond – “Thoughts of a Colored Man” unfolds as a series of vignettes of prose, poetry, and song set over the course of a day in a gentrifying Brooklyn neighborhood. Those seven actors are Dyllón Burnside, Bryan Terrell Clark, Da’Vinchi, Luke James, Forrest McClendon, Esau Pritchett, and Tristan ‘Mack’ Wilds. Its form has drawn comparisons to Ntozake Shange’s “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow Is Enuf,” a landmark work that was nominated for the Best Play Tony Award in 1977.

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In his review, Naveen Kumar (Variety) calls “Thoughts of a Colored Man” a “welcome if uneven” work. “Scott’s poetic distillations gleam with insights and vulnerabilities of heart and mind,” he writes, but the work amounts to “an uneven sort of naturalism” that can feel “didactic.” Ultimately, though, Kumar says that the play does address “a clear and present hunger” amongst theatergoers hoping to see works about Black life that are written and directed by and starring Black talent.

Helen Shaw (Vulture) shares similar thoughts, writing that Scott’s “greatest gifts lie in scripting complex interactions,” but she notes that his “rhapsodic mode can be clunky.” Of the seven performances, Shaw highlight’s McClendon, who portrays Depression, and “whose electrifying energy makes him seem the first among these equals.”

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Maya Phillips (New York Times) offers a slightly different opinion. She notes how the play “aspires to be a lyrical reckoning with Black life in America but only delivers a gussied-up string of straw-man lessons.” Phillips continues, “Scott’s script teeters between presenting fully drawn characters and firm personifications, ultimately failing at either.” Her review singles out three of the performers: James as Passion, who “shows off his stellar voice, even if for only a few bars scattered throughout the production,” Clark as Happiness, who gives the play “some much-needed representation of a queer Black character,” and Da’Vinchi as Lust for his “comic moments.”

While most of the reviews are in this vein, Greg Evans (Deadline) praises the play as “remarkable,” writing, “‘Thoughts of a Colored Man is a paean to life as both survival and celebration, a tribute and exploration of the Black men who find beauty, dignity, frustration and inspiration where they can.”

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With such varied reviews, it is hard to know how the small Tony nominating committee will respond to the play come voting in the spring. “Thoughts of a Colored Man” will have no shortage of competition, though, with at least nine other new dramas opening before the eligibility period ends, including “Pass Over,” “Chicken & Biscuits,” “Is This a Room,” “The Lehman Trilogy,” “Dana H.,” Lynn Nottage’s “Clyde’s,” Dominique Morisseau’s “Skeleton Crew,” Tracy Letts’ “The Minutes,” and “Birthday Candles.” Unlike some of those works, “Thoughts” plans to run through March 2022, which will help it stay in the conversation as the spring slate of plays opens.

Like many plays and musicals this fall, “Thoughts of a Colored Man” is a true ensemble piece, which also makes predicting its prospects of acting nominations a challenge. And like new musical “Six,” for example, it seems unlikely that the producers would petition any of its seven actors to be considered in the lead category versus featured, where they will compete now based on their billing. It seems more likely that a nomination for the play itself or director Broadnax – or perhaps even for its evocative billboard scenic design by three-time Tony nominee Robert Brill – will represent the overall work at the 2022 Tony celebration.

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