In the spring of 2015, Sonny Kelly — an actor, performer, Ph.D. student at UNC-Chapel Hill and, perhaps most importantly, a black man — was driving his seven-year-old son Sterling to school. He tuned the radio to NPR, as he did most mornings, a routine that allowed him to open up a dialogue with his son about the world’s current events and happenings. But that day, the radio station was reporting on the riots in Baltimore that followed the death of Freddie Gray, a black man who died from injuries sustained while in police custody. All of a sudden, Kelly was saddled with explaining police brutality to his child — a lesson that distressingly “hit really close to home.”
“Whereas I was used to explaining to him what was going on in the news, I could not avoid the fact that the cause of all of this going on in Baltimore was really a black man,” Sonny recalled. “It was very important to note that it was because he was black that all of this was happening. In that moment, I looked at my son, and I realized, ‘Oh, you’re a black boy. And you’re one day going to be a black man.’ So this is not a typical lesson. This is a life lesson.”
Kelly, who formerly served as a U.S. Air Force officer, had only a short amount of time to communicate to his son the magnitude of what it means to be black in America, to exist within the confines of white supremacist structures and to encounter racist ideologies in what can often be life-or-death situations. Looking back on it, Kelly realized that he gave his son a speech that almost resembled a threat briefing, the kind that military members receive before departing for a mission. That speech would prove to be the basis for “The Talk,” an hour-long, one-man show that Sonny will be performing across the Triangle area.
“I call it a ‘discursive heirloom,’” Kelly said. “A habitual hand-me-down from generation to generation, what my father had told me and his parents told him, what people have told us as black people, especially as black males. … So I unloaded on this seven-year-old, all the time anxious and afraid that I was killing his innocence, that I would maybe make him angry or afraid.”
It was the first time Kelly had talked to his son explicitly about racial politics in America, and although he’d approached it with an instinctually calmed composure, it wasn’t until later that Kelly felt the weight of the conversation envelop him.
“About two weeks later I found myself walking in downtown Fayetteville … and I just started weeping,” Kelly said. “I started thinking about the fact that I had to have this talk with my son, and it what it meant to him and to me. I didn’t know it was in me. I didn’t know that the anguish was there … When you’re in a group of people that have always experienced this, you get used to it. ‘It is what it is, we’ve got to push through, endure.’”
So Kelly pulled out his phone and began to document his experience of talking with his son, and quickly saw the story’s potential as a script, which he developed into an eight-minute piece called “Sterling’s Story.” Afterward, through a class about creating original performance work at UNC-Chapel Hill in 2016, Kelly developed “Sterling’s Story” into what is now “The Talk.” He tapped the class’s professor, Joseph Megel, to direct the play, who is also the artistic director for the StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance.
“It's time that, in this divided era, we own our own stories,” Kelly said. “We speak for ourselves. This story is not a black show, it’s not a race show. … This is one man’s story about his love for his son, and how that story gets complicated by the race politics and inequity in this country. And so, being a one-person show, it allows me to own it and speak my truth … I don’t even have solutions for it. I just know we need to talk about this thing.”
And for Kelly, whose doctoral work partially deals with communications, that’s precisely the problem with so-called conversations surrounding police brutality: They aren’t actually conversations at all.
“We are presenting our sides, our talking points, we are listening to sound bites, we are framing everything in political and sometimes prescribed identities, politics,” Kelly said. “But we’re not saying, ‘You’re a human, I’m a human.’”
Indeed, much of the writing and art surrounding police brutality in recent years has been concerned with the systemic side of racialized violence, from Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “Between the World and Me” to Angie Thomas’s “The Hate U Give.” But Kelly’s show taps into a far more intimate, interpersonal and sometimes uncomfortable narrative — that, regardless of one’s race, we are individually accountable in the struggle for racial equality.
To further that intimacy, Kelly holds talkbacks with the audience after every performance of “The Talk,” and presents a panel that includes himself, members of law enforcement, educators and parents. It’s an all-encompassing and sometimes disparate group that he believes is critical to have at the table together in order to effectively talk about issues that affect the black community.
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“I’ve learned that ‘The Talk’ is much bigger than me,” Kelly said. “I don’t have pictures of Sterling up and I don’t embody Sterling because I want Sterling to be anybody. … It’s very important that people see Sterling as everybody’s hope and pride and joy, everybody’s child.”
Kelly also stressed that the purpose of “The Talk” is ultimately not to demoralize anyone or make them feel guilty, but to bring awareness to issues afflicting the black community and open the audience’s eyes to the plight of others. To create a story that allows anyone, black or white, to find a deep emotional connection with the subject matter at hand, and reflect on the ways in which they can hold themselves accountable.
“I remember when we did [‘The Talk’] at the Chapel Hill library, and a white male stood up and he said ‘I want to thank you for calling me in and not calling me out,’” Kelly said. “That was huge to me. I thought, ‘Mission accomplished. That’s what I want the show to do.’”
“The Talk” is written and performed by Sonny Kelly, directed by Joseph Megel and co-produced by Bulldog Ensemble Theater and StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance. It runs from Jan. 24 to Feb. 10 at the Durham Fruit and Produce Company.