By Kim Jackson
If you don’t know what “the talk” is that every black parent must have with their black sons, then you must educate yourself by seeing Sonny Kelly’s one-man show, The Talk. The play is storytelling at its very best, and more importantly, it opens up a necessary dialogue needed for today and every day.
Kelly, currently a doctoral candidate at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill and a father of two sons, has expanded an eight minute piece based on a conversation with his oldest son, then seven, into a 70-minute experiential performance piece that reflects upon what it means to be black in America. Director Joseph Megel not only encouraged Kelly to expand the work into a one-act, but also expertly directs this production, which offers up a historical perspective as to why “the talk” is still necessary. And that is what is truly troubling.
Kelly is mesmerizing as he morphs from one character to another, including from his father to his grandfather, and even his grandmother. He also transforms into a white police officer and then back to himself as a father conversing with his son. He wants the audience to understand what it means to grow up black and how a black man’s identity is defined by others. The phrase “ten o’clock, two o’clock” serves as a mantra that connects past and present events. Kelly is in the car when he hears of the rioting in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray. That news event is the impetus for Kelly to give “the talk” to his son, and becomes a poignant reminder of the same conversation Kelly had with his own father.
Kelly not only expertly channels twenty distinct characters, smoothly transitioning with changes in voice, mannerisms and body language, but he also brings the audience into the performance. At times he is the teacher, writing on the blackboard, calling on audience members to answer questions, and reading from one of the many books that are stacked on tables around the stage. When he is playing himself as the concerned father, he pulls the audience in like a polished stand-up comedian, only his punchlines are more profoundly and painfully packed to command attention.
His various characters ground their personal stories with introspection and Kelly loops their observations around to provide a deeper reflection on recent events like Charlottesville and the Silent Sam monument. It’s a thorough lesson in racial injustice. Pictures of boys and men whose bodies were subjected to brutality just because they were black (Emmett Till, Rodney King, Trayvon Martin) are thrown up on screens in memoriam and as a somber reminder that they too were sons. grandsons, and fathers, full of hope for the future. Kelly’s stories are their stories, a seemingly sad, timely, and universal story.
This is a show that will burrow into the soul. Emotions will percolate and then boil over witnessing the pain that Kelly feels about the world in which he must raise his sons. He can’t preserve the innocence of his children when evil is real. Only through hard conversations will change happen because there are a lot of ugly truths that create artificial boundaries, the effects of which have very real consequences.
The Talk is a co-production of StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance and Bulldog Ensemble Theater. The show runs through February 10th at The Fruit in Durham and plays February 14th – 17th at the Historic Playmakers Theatre in Chapel Hill. For more information visit: https://www.bulldogdurham.org/the-talk.
Note: I’d recommend staying for the discussion with the playwright after the show. Kelly hosts guests from the community to discuss their experiences and invites questions from the audience. It moves the conversation forward.