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Theatre Review by James Wilson - April 29, 2022

Jessica Catalano and Wallace Demarriá
Photo by Kamal X.
Is the United States any closer to a so-called "post-racial" society than it was before Barack Obama was elected? What does it even mean to be Black in America? Is a person's race merely defined by the color of their skin? And is a working-class African American more authentically Black than one who is financially well-off and more socially well-connected? The fraught and provocative questions come fast and furious in Wallace Demarriá's ambitious but flawed Colorblind, now playing at the Actors Temple Theatre. While the play does not (and should not) provide easy answers, it at least gives the audience plenty to think about.

James Baldwin famously stated, "I love my country more than any other country in the world and, exactly for this reason, I insist on the right to criticize her perpetually." A similar philosophy guides the play's central character, Clinton Muhammad (Demarriá), who is a polarizing public figure. Presented as a cross between Louis Farrakhan and Al Sharpton, Muhammad publicly and vociferously speaks out against systemic racism in the United States. In many ways, he might even be considered a separatist, as suggested by his moral opposition to the mixing of the races.

Muhammad is the leader of an organization called Minority Empowerment Movement (M.E.M), and Janet Smith (Dana Harris) is its fiercely dedicated and intensely efficient administrative manager. The institution also includes a pair of bickering associates, Marcus Reed (Hank Dennis), who is an established member of the M.E.M, and Rasheed Alan (Gregory Warren), Muhammad's young protégé.

M.E.M. has accumulated its share of enemies, and Muhammad is depicted as the defining symbol of Black anger and violence. This is perpetuated by the conservative media, represented by a Tucker Carlson-type personality named Ross Akins (Joseph Salvatore Knipper), who describes Muhammad as "the most hated man in America." The local law enforcement, represented by Lt. Thomas (Valence Thomas) and an eager young police officer (Jeremy Rosenblum), treat him as a dangerous agitator. In short, M.E.M. is as politically explosive as TNT.

Amidst a powder keg of smoldering emotions and churning deceitfulness, Muhammad remains resolute in his racial convictions. When an attempted assassination occurs, though, he becomes (literally) colorblind, and his foundational principles are put to the test while under the care of Dr. Yolanda Evans (Jessica Catalano).

Colorblind forthrightly and doggedly tackles important issues, and Demarriá intriguingly shows how race and class are tightly intertwined. As a play, though, the tone shifts as it swerves from social realism toward hokey melodrama. There are also a number of dramatic holes, and some of the situations strain plausibility. For instance, the motive behind the attempted assassination has not been fully explained through character development or logical circumstances. That is, we know it is an inside job, but the reasons behind the actions are not apparent. Also, Muhammad's prolonged public disappearance in the second act seems to be simply a plot contrivance.

The production, which is co-directed by Wallace Demarriá and Amanda White-Del Pino, does not help in smoothing over the rough patches. Impassioned moments are underscored with canned and banal music (provided by Nat Jenkins and Tiaffo), and the lighting (by Maarten Cornelis with the added difficulty of working against the brown paneled scenic design by Ru) jarringly dims or brightens as a means of telegraphing sexual tensions. Exposition is bluntly presented through the Fox-News figure, and this adds to the play's overall lack of subtlety.

The actors fare somewhat better. As the militant activist with a distaste for incendiary language, Demarriá hits most of the right notes, and he is ultimately a sympathetic figure. Harris and Catalano effectively show the ways in which we make harmful assumptions around race, class and gender. Warren is also very likable as the manipulated and manipulable Rasheed.

In the end, Colorblind may be a little too obvious and unsubtle dramaturgically, but in its unapologetic treatment of race in America, the play might just help us see the issues a bit more clearly.

Actors Temple Theatre, 339 West 47th St.
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