Characters such as Goldilocks and the Three Bears, Michael Jackson and members of the Black Panther Party will help the Festival Playhouse at Kalamazoo College address themes such as racial stereotypes, beauty ideals and relationships in a staged reading of a comedy coming this week.
Kevin Renn, a playwright from New York City, will be among those observing his latest work, BLACKS+PHATS, a show that he has designed to give Black people and full-bodied people the last laugh at the end of the day as it premieres Thursday and runs through Sunday.
“I was always horrifyingly fascinated with stereotypes, how people see others in certain ways, and how that affects society,” Renn said. “I wanted to take these stereotypes along with people’s biases, and flip them on their head or stretch them to the ridiculous to point out to people how insane they are.”
Renn has written essays for the New York Times and is known for productions such as Showcase: A Rehearsal Musical, which details a challenging final practice session for a group of theatre students the night before a college showcase performance; Mulatto Boy, about the only student of color at a private school where he runs for student body president; and Jungle Juice, addressing six friends who celebrate their college graduation and end up confronting their uncertain futures and a troubling secret. BLACKS+PHATS, however, focuses on the similar ostracism and isolation both Black people and full-bodied people face and how they can help each other.
“When I think about the heart of this play, it is a stripping down of everything to a common core,” Renn said. “It’s children. It’s this idea that the fat kids get picked on and bullied a lot. I saw that growing up. I also understand what it means to be a Black kid in a white space and be picked on, bullied and ostracized in that way. When you strip it down to that, that is the simplest element in which they can connect. It’s how they feel left out and pushed aside, and in the manner that they’re pushed aside, they find each other. They can then find strength in each other to lift and build up each other.”
Assistant Professor of Theatre Quincy Thomas takes on multiple roles within the BLACKS+PHATS vignettes.
“Theatre is a space where we see the world through different lenses,” Thomas said. “I would hope that the audience walks away from this understanding the insidious ways in which popular culture, the media and even movies have marginalized and pushed blackness to the outskirts of society, the outskirts of our culture, particularly in the areas of honest representation. I hope the audience walks away understanding the ways in which the representation of blackness has been wrongfully shaped, formed and monetized.”
Tickets for BLACKS+PHATS, which is scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Thursday–Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday, are available online. The Thursday production includes an audience talkback after the show with Renn. Tickets for adults are $15, seniors $10 and students $5. Kalamazoo College students, faculty and staff are admitted free. Please note that proof of vaccination and masks are required for admittance to the theatre.
“The coolest thing about this production is that it’s a new work,” Thomas said. “The playwright has a young, vibrant, wise voice, and it’s an honor to deliver his message. It’s really exciting to spend time with him and talk with him about his motivations and his process.”