Kalopsia uses laughter and music to address mental health stigma in Black community | Theater | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Kalopsia uses laughter and music to address mental health stigma in Black community

click to enlarge Kalopsia uses laughter and music to address mental health stigma in Black community
Photo: Renee Rosensteel
Malcolm McGraw as Bernard “Byrd” Fuller in New Hazlett Theater's Kalopsia The Musical
Wearing rose-colored glasses? It’s a phrase at the heart of Kalopsia The Musical, a new production at New Hazlett Theater focused on mental health and the culture surrounding it in the Black community. Kalopsia, the delusion of things being more beautiful than they really are, brings an important issue intertwined with comedy and song, creating a multi-layered story that keeps audiences guessing — and laughing — throughout the performance.

Written by Monteze Freeland and directed by Tomé Cousin, Kalopsia, running Oct. 7-17, originally debuted as a workshop with New Hazlett in 2017, and has now blossomed into a beautiful musical, the theater’s first performance since the pandemic closed its doors in 2020.

The musical tells the story of Bernard “Byrd” Fuller, played to perfection by Pittsburgh native Malcolm McGraw, whose coping mechanisms of escapism and fantasies, complete with dance numbers and “creative collaborators,” catch up with him as an adult. The story begins with a meeting with Byrd’s parents at his elementary school, where the subject of therapy is first discussed, leading to contention between his parents, and a disagreement on his mental health treatment. His behavior continues to escalate over the years.

And then comes the fun. We’re introduced to present-day Byrd, a young twenty-something, sassy, fierce queen dancing alongside his backup dancers — pardon me, “creative collaborators” — The Blue Byrds. Byrd dons a purple hotel uniform with a gold fanny pack, posing on the front desk at the Hotel Darius. (While the costuming, designed by Lindsay Gorganson, was modern, I loved that Byrd’s theme colors were purple and gold, and everything he wore throughout the performance continued to be in that color scheme.) Byrd is chillin’ with his coworkers, Vanessa (captured by Ryan Jordan, whose only concern is going viral on TikTok; absolutely nailed Gen Z), and Gerald (appeared in a cloud by Treble Nls, who has a Ph.D. in High Times.)
click to enlarge Kalopsia uses laughter and music to address mental health stigma in Black community
Photo: Renee Rosensteel
Cheryl El Walker as Glenda “Goodie” King and Malcolm McGraw as Bernard “Byrd” Fuller

Enter Cousin Larry (Richard McBride), Hotel Darius’ manager and owner. He finds his employees posing, feet up and hazy, and snapping about, causing a furrowed brow. He comes to deliver news: “It’s time to shape up!” There’s a big opportunity for the hotel this weekend — Reverend Al Sharpton and his staff are coming to town and he’s going to stay at the hotel! They need to be on their best behavior, and shape up or ship out! Cue music!

The rest of the production continues in a delightful array of antics, betrayals, and witty banter from the cast of characters, all who are incredibly talented.

A huge stand-out for me was Charlese Dawson, who plays Hattie Mae Wilkes, a guest at the hotel where Byrd works. Her voice was phenomenal. She sang a song with the equally talented and handsome Richard McBride, Byrd’s cousin Larry, owner of Hotel Darius (and her love interest), and she killed that song. Yes, Mariah Carey, she has the range! (Byrd would get that joke.)

Dominique Briggs, who plays Byrd’s mother, Karen, perfectly captured a Black mother with a child who has a mental illness. (I know that because as a Black woman, I have experienced it, and she reminded me of my own mom.)

This is a performance you have to see for yourself. It’s a comedy, but it’s also a story about mental health. The idea of seeking therapy. The admission that you, or someone you know, or your child has a problem. The stigma of having a mental illness and the fear of what people will think. That prayer cures everything on its own. That therapy can lead to psychiatry and medication.

What is the appropriate way to deal with mental health? How can we get more people to see that we all experience it, and see that it’s not a weakness, and it is totally normal?

I can say I left feeling better about my own personal situations after seeing this play. I recommend seeing it yourself. I think you’ll leave understanding why you need to “Get your mind right!”
Kalopsia The Musical. Continues through Sun., Oct. 17. $20-35. New Hazlett Theater, 6 Allegheny Square East, North Side. newhazletttheater.org