“Thoughts of a Colored Man,” from University to Broadway

August Wilson’s plays were not found in the drama curriculum at Frostburg State University when Keenan Scott II attended school in Maryland in the mid-2000s. Works by Lorraine Hansberry, Amiri Baraka, Adrienne Kennedy or Lynn Nottage no more.

But there was the pioneer of Ntozake Shange “For Girls of Color Who Have Considered Suicide / When the Rainbow is Over”, from 1975.

Scott, who is making his Broadway debut as the author of “Thoughts of a Colored Man,” said a classroom screening of Shange’s work was his first – and essentially his only – exhibition at the theater. by black dramatists in college. And just as Shange coined the term “choreopoeme” for its hybrid form, Scott began to describe “Thoughts”, his main project, as “slam narrative”.

The word “colorful” brings a very different set of associations today than it was in 1975, when water fountains and separate toilets only existed ten years ago. And yet that word is both in the title of Scott’s play and over 21 feet wide on the billboard at the center of Robert Brill’s set at the John Golden Theater.

Like Shange (whose “choreopoeme” will hit Broadway next year), Scott has created a mosaic of speeches, poems and songs for seven performers of color. (And neither of the playwrights identified their characters by name; Scott instead calls them traits such as happiness, love, and depression.) He also featured two dancers and a DJ on stage. All three have disappeared, as have parts of the original text. Only Tony Award nominee Forrest McClendon (“The Scottsboro Boys”) remains in this cast.

Scott and McClendon recently sat down with “Thoughts” director Steve H. Broadnax III and Brian Moreland, one of the show’s main producers, to discuss how the play has evolved, especially over the past two years. years. Their interviews have been edited and condensed.

Is “Thoughts of a Colored Man” at some level an answer to “For Girls of Color”? Or is it its own thing?

KEENAN SCOTT II I am inspired by the work of Ntozake and many others, but it is completely his thing. I liked the word “colorful” because it elicits a visceral response. To this day, people ask, “Why say ‘colorful’? Why use “colored”? We no longer use it. But that’s the point. There was a time when we were labeled “colorful”. And across the course of the room, you see why these men shouldn’t be tagged.

FORREST McCLENDON Ntozake wrote so that girls of color had something to do. And Keenan wrote for color Men literally have something to do. So that we are represented on stage.

STEVE H. BROADNAX III The genre Keenan coined, “slam narrative,” is a loose plot – that’s the difference. You can take, say, “Def Poetry Jam” on Broadway, which is a bunch of poetry and poets that you can put in any kind of mix. But here, if you take one out, it starts to spoil the loose plot. So he really created something new. “For Colored Girls” doesn’t have a loose plot, but it does.

If I understand the title correctly, do these seven men also essentially represent a human?

SCOTT Absoutely. These are, these could be, seven parts of the same man. We can all be certain of these things. We can all be all of these things.

How has the room changed since Syracuse and Baltimore?

SCOTT It’s really just a re-investigation of these characters, to make sure they all had their own journey. Some monologues have been added. A new scene here and there. We knew some characters were a little more shallow than others, and we wanted to make sure they were all just as robust.

Can you cite specific examples?

SCOTT I started writing this play when I was 19, so originally these characters were all around 20, because that’s where I was in life. Fifteen years later, being a 34-year-old married man with a child, my sense of the world has deepened. I’ve been with this piece for so long that I literally grew up with these characters. And as development progressed, the characters also started to grow. So now the characters range from 18 to 65.

BROADNAX The bonds between each of the characters have changed. We discovered, for example, how love and lust related to each other. You now have all of those “aha” moments to see how they’re all interconnected.

Do you think the play would look or feel any different if you had opened on Broadway straight from Baltimore, which was the plan before it closed?

SCOTT As Steve says all the time, everything happens in divine order. I think the show would have been just as great. But it would have been different.

BRIAN MORELAND After Baltimore, Keenan took a private workshop with himself, writing.

SCOTT We moved to Baltimore so quickly after Syracuse. I was taking notes and some things just couldn’t be implemented quickly enough. It was then that I entered this private workshop. And then Covid came along, and we had all the time in the world.

When I saw him in Syracuse, there were also two women in the cast. What happened to them?

BROADNAX We found out that it was a story, and a space, for these black men. Women are still part of their world. They are there in the media; they are there in spirit; they are there in the language. But we thought it was a space for men.

MORE LAND You go out of town to have a safe space to experiment. In addition to the dancers, there was also a DJ who was originally part of the production. All of these elements have continued to evolve and change.

McCLENDON Music, movement, and media are all very important in this piece, but the star of this piece is the text. And anything that in any way overshadowed the text – including the actors – had to take its rightful place on the periphery. For me, in Syracuse as in Baltimore, the discovery of women came from the women of the public. They thought it was really a man’s story.

SCOTT I’ve known from day one that the specter of the black man is rarely, rarely shown, especially on Broadway. We don’t have that space. This is what I wanted to create 15 years ago for myself and my peers who felt excluded from an art form that we were studying.

You were supposed to open on October 31st, then the opening night suddenly increased by two weeks. The openings move all the time, but in the other direction. What motivated the move?

MORE LAND Their dress rehearsal. Their first glimpse. Their second preview. The audience is clamoring to see these men, to hear these stories, to hear Keenan’s words. This is what motivated the change. Because it was ready.

When you sat down to write, Keenan, did you feel the play had to be different because the world was different?

SCOTT This is a delicate question for me. I started writing this play when George W. Bush was President. It was three administrations ago. Much has changed and much has not. People often ask me how the events around George Floyd affected me. For the black community, George Floyd was nothing new. When I first started writing this article I was vaguely inspired by what was happening in my community in Queens when Sean Bell was killed. [in a police shooting]. Many of the themes I cover in the play are as ubiquitous as they were 15 years ago. I feel like I’ve created a timeless piece that can live on, but that saddens me too, as I wished these issues would have been resolved by now.

Do you feel like a lot of people in the Broadway audience are only now starting to understand what you’ve been going through all this time?

McCLENDON What has radically changed is the closure of the American theater. The public had the opportunity to take a step back and really wonder about what they had consumed. We are dealing with longstanding oppressive practices, but it is an industry that is generally willing to look in the mirror. Look at each other and stare at each other. How are we accomplices? I think we are in a new moment. And I think the play plays an important role in this performance.

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