In Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper, two boys step outside their different lives to learn about each other, themselves and society. It’s a tale of image and identity teaching that appearances can hide reality and ours is not the only perspective.
Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies has a similar moral core, while reaching far beyond a fictional kingdom into a gritty and complicated reality. It’s the latest in Echo Theater Company’s series, including Poor Clare, addressing current issues. Just as remarkable as that play, Hooded combines a deep dive into the period (for Clare, the 13th century, for Marquise and Tru, 800 years later). Hooded cracks open tropes about our racist society and the dawning awareness and attendant heartache inevitably associated with growing up.
Hooded flips the traditional “notice the emergency exits and silence your cell phones” intro in a way that sets the tone: playwright Tearrance Arvelle Chisholm is playful but he makes sure to say what needs to be said. He employs repetition, dual roles for actors and surprises in deep and provocative ways. It’s a comedy and the audience is encouraged to laugh. But is the laughter always coming at the right times?
The endearing and evolving Marquis (Jalen K. Stewart) goes to an other-than-him white prep suburban school. He’s “Trayvoning” (lying on the ground with a can of Arizona Iced Tea and a bag of Skittles) at a Baltimore cemetery with two white friends when police officer Borzoi (Robert Hart) chases after him and lets the other two escape. Held at the police station for trespassing, he meets the tough but vulnerable Tru (Brent Grimes). When Marquis’ lawyer mother Debra (Tasha Ames) shows up to express her outrage, she strongarms Borzoi into releasing Tru as well.
The two start out focused primarily on their differences. Over time they find and develop more similarities, from poetry to world view. Mutual respect and resisted lessons come to define their friendship.
The prep school environment is well-painted. It includes the two friends of Marquis who fled the cemetery, Hunter (Vincent Doud) and Fielder (Ezekiel Goodman).
There are three Instagramming girls (Clare Margaret Donovan, Betsy Stewart and Tash Ames) who see Marquis only through a prism of race. And there’s Headmaster Burns (Vincent Doud), the voice of authority.
The show leaves some unanswered questions about the two main characters, but Chisholm offers up enough to paint in detail as well as broad strokes and the actors excel. After it’s over, set aside time for a drink and a long conversation. It’s a lot to unpack.
Hooded, or Being Black for Dummies is produced by Echo Theater Company at Atwater Village Theatre, 3269 Casitas Ave., Los Angeles. It runs through April 18 on Mondays, Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00pm, Sundays at 4:00pm. Tickets are available here for $34; Mondays are pay-what-you-want.