by JK Clarke
The experience of growing up black in an all, or mostly-white community in the United States is one that very few white Americans understand. Even amongst a supposedly open and accepting community, some things simply don’t translate from one culture to another. In Carlos Heredia’s (and Hip Hip Heredia Theater’s) introspective new musical, Then Sean Met Khalid (playing Friday and Saturday nights in October at the Playroom Theater in Times Square), the experience of growing up Black in White America is met head on in a tough and touching fashion.
In Then Sean Met Khalid we are introduced to Sean White (Carlos Heredia, who also wrote the music and lyrics, directed and produced the musical), a successful author returning to his hometown as a keynote speaker for the “2018 Authors of America Conference.” He’s a local boy who’s made the big time in the literary world. This is made all the more significant because, as his sister points out, he was “the only Black person in town.” His sister (Ariel Haan), mother and grandmother are excited for his return and it sparks a reminiscence for his family, particularly his mother, Karen (Stephanie Vanalstine) who created a stir—and not a little controversy—when she adopted Sean and brought him, an African American infant, home into her white family (who just so happen to be called the “White Family”) and her very white community. Her own mother (a dynamic Wendy Lazarus), in fact, reacts badly: “Were they out of white babies?” but only because she’s afraid of what other might say. “What are the neighbors going say?” she frets, “People aren’t ready for this . . . at least not in this town . . . He’ll be ridiculed, picked on,” she complains.
But Sean has a surprisingly “normal” childhood. In a long flashback we see that he’s an affable, happy-go-lucky young boy. He has a terrific family, a good life, plenty of friends and is interested in sports and comic books. Occasionally, his differences (his hair, skin color, etc.) are singled out, such as in this scene with childhood friends Jessie (Alan Kase) and Mandy (Shannon Meihaus). Sometimes racism presents itself quietly and innocently. Not always malevolently, but subtly and in ways that cut deep:
Sean: I’ll be Superman!
Jessie: Whoa, whoa, whoa, you can’t be Superman.
Sean: Why not, I called it?
Jessie: Hello, you’re black; Superman is white.
Mandy: Hey, you can be King Kong; he’s black.
It’s no wonder, then, that when in high school one of his teachers, Mr. K (Bryan Songy) gives him an assignment to watch a video of controversial Nation of Islam leader and black nationalist Khalid Muhammad, in a contentious debate with ultra conservative Fox News mouthpiece Sean Hannity, Sean (White, of this story) is stunned: “I was in shock when I first heard Dr. Khalid Muhammad speak. He said things that I’ve never heard before.” Ultimately he realizes some of Muhammad’s statements are extreme (some even promoting violence) but overall he’s awakened. He begins discussing race issues at school and with his friends, who are taken aback and don’t like the suggestion they are racist or privileged just because they’re white. But Sean counters with one of the essential points of the production, “You know, all my life I’ve had no choice but to learn about your white history. I’m finally learning about myself, my history and 10 minutes is too much of your time? Thanks.”
Then Sean Met Khalid comes off as gentle, with well-written and well-performed songs that expand on the textual material. But it has subtle, hard hitting moments, such as interstitial news reports that illustrate systemic bias against African Americans in this country, serving to underscore Sean’s experiences in a society that supports him in words, but not deeds.
The production also offers post-performance talkbacks that are startling in both the level of participation and emotion. The night I attended there were many in the audience who’d not attended theater often (or at all) and were enormously grateful to see a production that spoke to their own experiences, which they shared at length. It’s not often a musical generates this much community response—especially one this cathartic and therapeutic. For that alone, Then Sean Met Khalid is the essence of vital community theater. Hopefully, it will continue past its October run.
Then Sean Met Khalid. Friday and Saturday nights in October, starting this Friday, October 5 at The Playroom Theater (151 West 46th Street, between Sixth and Seventh Avenues). Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission. Tickets at Eventbrite.
Photos: Ken Bravo