Keenan Scott II

Keenan Scott II on the New York Focus of Thoughts of a Colored Man

Keenan Scott II wrote a play for a new Broadway. It’s a Broadway that is open to producing the works of diverse voices and staging them in front of audiences that may not have engaged in these types of plays before. Scott’s play Thoughts of a Colored Man follows seven Black men during a single day in Brooklyn as they are about to discover the extraordinary together. Scott uses what he calls “slam narrative,” a blend of spoken word, slam poetry, rhythm, and humor to create a daring new play. “I didn’t see myself represented in plays that I had studied in college, so I decided to write one,” he says. He never aspired for it to be on Broadway, but after years of development, his play landed in the hands of the right people, and the rest is history.

We caught up with Scott to discuss his new play, dispelling racial stereotypes, and why he choose Brooklyn, New York, to be the focal point.

Beyond your own personal experience, why was it important to speak specifically about the thoughts of Black men?

While I was studying theater as an undergrad, I was reading lots of plays but also being told that there were certain plays in the American lexicon that I needed to know. But when I was reading those stories, I didn’t see myself represented. So then I felt excluded from an art form that I was beginning to learn. Since I saw myself excluded, I wanted to create those stories for myself. As a young Black man, I still, to this day, hear that we don’t know how to express ourselves. I wanted to write a play to directly dispel those stereotypes and labels and really get to the inner thoughts of Black men.

What are some of those stereotypes that you are trying to dispel?

Hypermasculinity. When we see ourselves, especially portrayed in entertainment, we’re either the gangster, the thugs, or some super athlete. We’re also portrayed to be uneducated and fatherless. I understand a lot of that is what we have to do for survival, but I’m trying to dispel those stereotypes.

The setting of a play can often speak volumes to the direction a playwright wants to go in. Why did you choose Brooklyn to be the setting of Thoughts of a Colored Man? 

I’m originally from Queens, New York. And while I was in the later years of developing this piece, I had to get specific. And one of the main parts of this piece is about me living in Brooklyn and experiencing gentrification. I remember Old Brooklyn and seeing how gentrification really changed the face of Brooklyn. So I thought, “What better place than right there in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn?” When the play continues to take a life of its own after Broadway, I envision it staging in urban and inner-city environments where gentrification can be highlighted and discussed.

You said “Old Brooklyn,” so I knew that was coming from a real place.

Yes! The characters in this play live in and around Bed-Stuy, Fort Greene, Clinton Hill, and Prospect Heights.

Talk a little about why you use spoken word, slam poetry, and rhyme—all things that are iconic and unique to Black culture.

Well, I’m a slam poet. I started performing on stage in the underground poetry scene in Washington, D.C., when I was 15 years old. Before I started writing plays or considering myself a playwright, I was a poet who was trying to write a play. So my natural and strongest voice as an artist was through spoken word, and through slam poetry. Over the years, I’ve worked really trying to form a new style of storytelling, fusing art forms we all know to really create a new genre that I like to call slam narrative. And slam narrative uses traditional theme work that you would see in any straight play and mixes it with slam poetry. It also operates in a place of internal thought. I really wanted to do something new.

Other than your lived experience, what Black men did you look to, to develop these characters?

I didn’t have to look far. I looked right in my community. I put a lot of myself on the stage, and also included my best friend, my cousin, my uncle, my father, my grandfather, and many men in my community who I’ve grown up around and who helped raise me. I didn’t have to do anything outside of my own existence. I didn’t have to do any personal research because I know all of these men I was writing about. That’s another thing that I’m trying to dispel about Black men in these communities. We are not monoliths. So in the events that I portrayed and captioned on stage, my DNA is in a lot of these characters, but really, I just wrote Black men who I’ve been around my entire life.

And how is it working with Steve H. Broadnax III as your director? Has he been able to bring your words to life the way you imagined? 

Absolutely! Steve has been so instrumental in this process. He is my brother for life. We worked so well together. We’ve known each other for a few years now, but you would think that we grew up together. Steve is such a great guy and such a phenomenal director. I’m waiting for the day where he becomes a household name, synonymous with George C. Wolfe and Kenny Leon. He really understands me. He understands my voice. He understands my language with his own background. So the pairing of us two couldn’t be any better.

Was it your dream to see this show produced on Broadway?

 Honestly, I just wanted it produced. I had a very long independent career. I was producing this play on my own for about eight or nine years. So before I even got any commercial attention, I was already doing it on my own. I was maxing out credit cards, saving up money, turning my family members into investors, and really just doing what I could do to produce this in independent houses up and down the East Coast. I was planning an HBCU tour a couple of years ago, and then I started to gain attention. The script started to come across the desk of the right people, where I started getting commercial attention. A few years ago I met Brian Moreland, my commercial producer. We began to develop the show first at Arena Stage in Washington D.C. and then at New York Theatre Workshop. And then we were able to get to Syracuse Stage, where I had my world premiere. Then I coproduced this show at Baltimore Center Stage just before COVID to get the attention of Broadway. Now I’m here.

And what does that mean for you?

It’s great to be a part of this historic moment. I feel everything works in God’s timing. Before COVID hit, we were poised to open last year, but of course, the whole world stopped live performance for a year and a half. And then to be a part of the season with six other Black playwrights means the most. I hope that we can show that this is a new day and age for Broadway, because we really need to turn a new page. Nobody wants it to be what it was. All of us are truly unique artists with seven different perspectives and seven different stories, and where everyone can see that there’s room for all of these diverse stories.

This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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