“Hands of Color” opens with a literal bang—a powerful and disturbing scene of an unarmed black man, standing outside his own home, being shot and killed by an unseen cop. So, it’s decidedly alarming and rather disconcerting that Synchronicity Theatre’s world-premiere production of the play (a first-time effort by California-based actress Kimberly Monks) unexpectedly develops into a dark comedy of sorts.
Before we get to know more about the slain victim, Robert (the ever-compelling Enoch King), we meet one of his white neighbors, Thomas (Justin Walker), a high-school math teacher, who at one point earnestly laments, “It’s very hard to be white in this country today.” Lest anyone think he’s a bigot, he illogically claims to have voted for both Obama and Trump.
But it makes one wonder, to hear Thomas talk about a “double standard” when it comes to blacks and whites using the N-word, or that he might casually refer to some of his students as “those people.” When he’s called to task for that remark, Thomas replies, “Those black people? Those African-American people? What can I say that doesn’t offend them?”
MORE THINGS TO DO: Atlanta Lyric Theatre’s production of “Oliver!”
It would be easy to dismiss the character as a one-note, irredeemable racist. That actor Walker plays Thomas as personably as he does is a shrewd move, however, because it’s just enough to persuade us to care about what happens to him, as he gets the rude awakening he so richly deserves—especially once we learn it was Thomas who called 9-1-1 on that fateful evening to report a “suspicious” black man on the block that he didn’t recognize as his own neighbor.
For Robert’s part, after joining a new law firm as its only black attorney, he makes a conscious decision to relocate to that “white community” with his wife (Wendy Fox Williams) and their 10-year-old daughter (adult actress Therecia Lang), whom they also enroll in a predominately white school. The lack of diversity is an issue that isn’t lost on him, but as he admits in retrospect late in the play, “I was afraid to die like a black man, so I made a choice not to live like one.”
How Robert and Thomas come to cross paths and interact so directly involves a supernatural twist that abruptly disconnects “Hands of Color” from the realm of realistic drama. With a fleeting sound cue and shift in lighting, Thomas is suddenly afforded an opportunity to see how the other half lives, as it were, by literally getting to walk in Robert’s mystical shoes.
The results are occasionally problematic to the Synchronicity staging, which is directed by the estimable Thomas W. Jones II, a bona fide man of the hour, between his current Theatrical Outfit show (“Five Guys Named Moe”) and his upcoming one at Horizon (“Sweet Water Taste”).
Once Thomas assumes Robert’s body and Walker begins playing King’s role, it’s often taxing trying to keep track and make sense of which scenes are flashbacks to actual events and which might be pure fantasy. Compounding the situation is the additional wrinkle that the young daughter is in on the cosmic conceit and able to see the real Thomas.
You can chalk up some of the consequent awkwardness to Monks’ playwriting inexperience. But director Jones bears part of the responsibility, too, for some of the show’s unwieldy variations in tone: e.g., a couple of sequences at Robert’s office, which could have been played straight and seriously, are pitched in such a way that veers into sitcom territory instead.
Race relations should be no laughing matter for an audience that knows from the start what tragedy awaits Robert—and in the end, blessedly, it isn’t. Walker and Lang share a truly lovely closing moment in the play, comparing her skin to the night sky, his to the bright stars and moon, and basking together in the glow of a hopeful, ultimately beautiful universe.
“Hands of Color”
Through June 30. 8 p.m. Wednesdays-Saturdays; 5 p.m. Sundays; 8 p.m. Monday (June 17 only). $24-$38 (Monday and Wednesday have pay-what-you-can shows). Synchronicity Theatre, 1545 Peachtree St. NW (in the Peachtree Pointe complex), Atlanta. 404-484-8636. synchrotheatre.com.
Bottom line: An uneasy mix of drama and comedy, reality and fantasy.
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.