On Wednesday evening in New York City, Anna Wintour, Huma Abiden, Joel Gray, Don Lemon, Phylicia Rashad, Kenny Leon and a host of New York theater luminaries filed into the Golden Theatre on Broadway for the opening night of Keenan Scott II’s “Thoughts of a Colored Man”—intrigued, arguably, to attend a play so polemically titled as desiring to take part in the celebrated march of Black playwrights to Broadway this season.
“15 years ago, while I was still in undergrad studying acting, I hadn’t seen myself on the American theater stage. I didn’t see myself. I didn’t see my family. I didn’t see my community, so I created it,” Scott told Variety. “I didn’t write this piece for myself. I wrote it so my Black men could feel important.”
“Thoughts of a Colored Man,” which is Broadway’s first play to be written, directed by, starring and lead produced by all-Black artists, fractures Scott’s identity into seven different characters, each representing a distinct emotion. The imagined men, who spend a day together in Brooklyn, are monoliths of a Black man’s identity—happiness, depression, wisdom—as they are, together, a summation of Black life rarely allowed to be experienced whole.
“Life is not easy for everyone, but for the Black man it is tremendously hard,” Luke James, who plays Passion, told Variety on the opening night red carpet. “Black men haven’t been given the space to be all things, and so in this play we are severed.”
“The specific gives way to the sublime,” director Steve Broadnax III said. “So often Black men get put in a box. When we’re seen on television screens, when we’re seen walking down the street with our children and partners, we’re perceived as archetypes of any one of these characters.”
As each of Scott’s imagined men interact on the stage, they materialize the playwright’s mind turning over and over, debating the existentialism of race and masculinity in America. Though fragmented, each man offers a whole and varied picture of African American life. “Though the characters are allegories, the men on this stage are just the men I’ve seen my whole life,” Scott said. “They’re also a collection of the men who’ve played these characters. Over the years, I’ve probably had 40 actors come in and out of this piece, and each of them have tailored and shaped the work.”
More broadly, Scott’s measurement—of fellowship and communion among the real Black men, not just imagined, in this play—is as tied to the ethos of “Thoughts of a Colored Man” as it is representative of the progressive changes in rehearsal rooms and studios on Broadway, as the industry strives to create safer spaces for artists of color.
“I asked everyone to lend their spirit to this show,” Scott told Variety. “What you see on the stage would not be possible if we didn’t create brotherhood in the rehearsal room.”
“As actors and creators, rooms like that normally don’t exist,” he continued. “Sometimes you have to show up, get your check, and go home or go back to your trailer. But with this play, with what we’re doing, we have to change that.”
For the actors, served as much by “Thoughts of a Colored Man” as its audience, those changes in the rehearsal room are tangible and distinct.
“This play has healed me,” Dyllón Burnside, who plays Love, told Variety before the show. “I said after rehearsals, if I never end up opening this play, if I never end up doing months of performances, I’ll be okay, because so much of the work we did in the room was transformational.”
“I don’t recall another opportunity in my life,” he said, “where I’ve been in a room with ten other Black men and been vulnerable, together and in service of art.”