Bringing Barbershop Talk to the Stage

By Michael Schulman via The New Yorker


To plug Keenan Scott II’s new play, “Thoughts of a Colored Man,” the producers sent a mobile barbershop around the city, in an attempt to diversify a Broadway audience that, Scott says, often doesn’t include Black people like him.

Keenan Scott II grew up in Flushing, Queens, but didn’t see his first Broadway show until he was in his twenties. The show was “Wicked,” and the ticket was a birthday gift. “It did not occur to me that stuff on Broadway was for me,” he said the other day. “It’s hard to invite people to spaces where they don’t see themselves.” Now that he’s a newly minted Broadway playwright—his play “Thoughts of a Colored Man” opened last week, at the Golden—Scott is trying to change that. He had just left a rehearsal in midtown and was lurching through traffic in a black S.U.V., wearing green Nikes and a denim jacket with a pin that read “black genius.”

Scott’s path to Broadway was circuitous. As an adolescent living in the Pomonok housing project, he started writing poetry “as an escape,” he recalled. When he was fifteen, his older sister’s boyfriend invited him to a poetry slam. “I went, and I did horrible. I forgot my poem onstage.” He told himself that he was done with poetry. “Then that competitive nature kicked in—the athlete came out. This can’t be my one-and-done!” A teacher told him to study “Def Poetry Jam,” and months later he returned to the club scene. “I killed it,” he said. He had just been cut from the basketball team, so he filled his new free time at slams, competing against adults and “sharpening my sword.”

By the time he got to Frostburg State University, in Maryland, he had decided to study theatre. “I thought, I’ll break in with acting, then people will find out that I can write, too,” he said. He read Shakespeare, Mamet, Ibsen, but “I didn’t see myself reflected in the plays.” In his sophomore year, he said to a friend, “I’m going to write us something, so we don’t have to change how we speak. We can be ourselves, and we can be full in our Blackness.” He staged the play in a black-box theatre and sold all the tickets within two hours, at the rec center. That was in 2009, and the play was an early version of “Thoughts of a Colored Man.” Melding poetry and dialogue, it traces a day in the lives of seven men in Bed-Stuy, where Scott now lives, with his wife and daughter. The characters have allegorical names, like Love, Lust, Anger, and Wisdom. In one raucous scene set at a barbershop, the guys debate gentrification and LeBron versus Kobe, while Wisdom cuts hair.

Scott is one of eight Black playwrights to be produced on Broadway this season, a benchmark that he called historic. But he stressed the need for “diversifying the producer pool” as well. The bigger lift may be diversifying the audience: how do you appeal to communities that don’t think Broadway is for them? The producers devised a marketing ploy: a mobile barbershop. Scott was making an appearance at its first stop, the Castle Hill Y.M.C.A., in the Bronx. He was greeted by the branch’s executive director, Sharlene Brown, who told him, “I’m a Queens girl, so I’m proud of you.” Near some basketball courts, families sat at picnic tables, eating barbecue. The truck—bright yellow and emblazoned with the line “Your barbershop talk comes to Broadway”—was parked in front of a chain-link fence. Inside, an eight-year-old boy was getting a free buzz cut. “What’s up, my man?” Scott said.

“I’m gonna sue him for one thousand dollars!” he yelled, scowling at the barber.

“What you gonna do with your thousand dollars?” Scott asked.

“I’m going to spend it all on Mech Arena,” he said, naming his favorite video game. Scott surveyed the décor—Knicks banners, a gumball machine, an Obama “hope” poster, vinyl records—and said, “We got some Miles Davis!”

“Who is Miles?” the boy said, annoyed. Scott gave him a fist bump through his smock, as the barber brushed off his neck. “How about if I sue you,” the boy threatened Scott, then added, looking at the barber, “I’m just joking. I’m still suing him.” He hopped out of the chair and returned to his mother, who had received vouchers for the play; tickets cost between forty-nine and two hundred and twenty-five dollars.

Outside, Scott addressed the crowd. “It’s very meaningful to me to come back to the community,” he said. “My father’s from Tremont, so the Bronx is a little bit of home, too.” He went on, “A lot of times, they say we don’t go to live theatre. We do, though. But we have to feel welcomed. When we feel welcomed, we show up.” Afterward, he shook hands and posed for photos, like a candidate for office. An older man leaned in and asked, “Why ‘colored’?”

“I’d love to have that conversation, but I have to pick up my daughter from school,” Scott said. “It’s a show about how we’re more than what we’re labelled. I wanted a visceral response from people when they saw the word ‘colored.’ ” A table of women beckoned him over. “I want you all at the show,” he told them. “It’s for us.”