Artsy Fartsy: 'Diary of Black Men' Review

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On Friday night, the Hubs and I headed out to the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Toronto to catch Diary of Black Men, hosted in part by Toronto's newest radio station, G98.7 FM. A couple weeks ago, I was lucky enough to win free tickets to the show through the radio station, and I'll be honest: if it wasn't for the fact that I won tickets AND that Thomas Mikal Ford and Carl Payne (Tommy and Cole from Martin) were part of the cast, I would not have gone. I'll explain why in a minute.

If you're not familiar with the play, Diary of Black Men was written by Thomas Meloncon in the late 70's. The play was first featured off-Broadway in 1982, then hit the mainstream after an appearance on the Phil Donahue show in 1989. Directed by Russell Andrews, the play speaks to the experience of Black men in America and focuses on the relationship between Black men and women. Featuring five main characters - The Militant, The Playa, The Black Muslim, The Blue-Collar, and The Intellectual - they interact with each other and the audience to disseminate the role of the Black man in society, how they view Black women, and how to balance the associated struggles and strengths.

Diary of Black Men played in Toronto a few years back, and I made sure to hit it up with a few girlfriends. The anticipation of supporting a Black play in Toronto faded as I became more and more disillusioned with the production. The opening musical act was sloppy and rushed. The actors (especially The Playa) seemed unprepared, forgetting lines and cues. But even more so, I just couldn't relate to the story. The ads hyped up the fact that this was the longest running Black play in North America, and it was painfully obvious. The roles, the script, and the scenarios were very dated, and I felt like I was watching more of a historical recount of being Black in America than anything else. I left disappointed to say the least.

Within the last month or so, I started hearing that voice on my radio: "How do you lahhhhhhhhhh-ve a Black woman? How do you LAHHHHHHHHH-VE a Black Woman?" Diary of Black Men was coming back to Toronto, and frankly, I didn't care. However, the one caveat that made me think twice was the fact that Thomas Mikal Ford and Carl Payne would be part of the cast. If you know me at all, you KNOW I live for Martin. I've found a way to incorporate "Git tha drawls!" and "Rent 'em spoons!" into my regular lexicon, so when I heard 'Tommy' and 'Cole' would be in the house, my icy demeanor started to melt. While I sat at work one day listening to G98.7 FM, I heard a call to send a photo of your Black man to their Twitter account. I did, and I won. Two tickets to the play were in my hands, and I thought, 'I get to see Tommy and Cole, and have a free date night? I'm in!' I hoped that my love for Tommy and Cole would help me to enjoy the play more than I did in the past, and I was (somewhat) right.

The Good:

  • Thomas Mikal Ford and Carl Payne were AWESOME. They breathed new life into the roles of The Militant and The Blue-Collar, and showed their acting range for folks who only know them from Martin. Their skill really added to the quality of the play, which in turn surely inspired the other cast members to bring their A-game. Which leads to my next bullet:
  • All of the actors were on point. Compared to my last viewing, the actors remembered their lines and cues, (which is really a non-negotiable in theatre), and delivered well. They were all able to hold their own and brought great energy to their roles.
  • The play seemed to be a bit more updated. I didn't feel transported back to 1990 this time. While I could still tell this was a play written long ago, it seemed that more effort was made to bring the storylines up to today's audience. References to President Obama, Twitter, and Facebook, etc. made it a bit more relevant for current times.
  • I laughed, I "Mmmhmmm"-ed, and I pondered. Because the quality of the play was heightened, I was able to pay more attention to the embedded messages, and gained a lot that I missed the first time around.

The Bad:

  • It was STILL too dated. After over 20 years of performance, I think Diary of Black Men in its current state has run its course. Black men and women (and their surrounding environments) have changed, and this play would be even harder-hitting if it reflected that change. What other representations of Black men can we have in the cast? What other scenarios can we play out and deconstruct?
  • The lone representation of Black women. She was represented by one female character, who did interpretive dance in lieu of a speaking role. Do I think that a speaking role was necessary for the representation of the Black woman? Perhaps, but then this may be a completely different play. The Black woman seemed to be monolithic, so I think that even if in a non-speaking sense, there should have been more variation with the Black woman as there was for the Black man.
  • Discussions on homosexuality amongst Black men. I've developed a more critical eye when it comes to the intersectionalities¬†of race, gender, and sexuality, so I was looking forward to seeing this scenario again. I won't give it away, but one of the characters reveals that he is gay - I couldn't remember exactly how it played out, but when it did, I was disappointed. It was handled superficially and was more of a comedic point than a teachable moment. Homosexuality and homophobia are huge discussion points in the Black community, and the way this scenario played out reminded me of how dated the play was.

The Verdict:

  • It was MUCH improved, but we wanted and needed MORE. Everyone I spoke to after the play agreed the play was good, but was lacking something. In my personal opinion, I think it made us think about things and want to get deeper into uncovering various perspectives and truths. However, the play was limited in its scope (due largely to being written so long ago), and that left us hungry for more. Perhaps original audiences used this play as a jumping off point for discussions about race and relationships, but today's audience is already having these discussions, and needs our art forms to enrich us. That's the next step for Diary of Black Men - find a new way to relate to today's audience and give us that enrichment that we need.

Did you see Diary of Black Men? What did you think? I'd especially love to hear from people who saw it for the first time. I'm glad we have a vehicle through G98.7 FM to promote and support events like this. We often are reminded to support Black art - do you feel obligated to do so even if you don't think the quality is up to par? I had a few people give me the side-eye because I vehemently refused to see the play initially. What say you?

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