‘Black Monologues’ prove once again to be incredible, essential

Third year of new tradition is just as powerful as ever

ae-BlackMonologues-CourtesyTheBlackMonologues

The third year of the Black Monologues continues to show why it is one of the University's most important theatrical productions.

The Black Monologues

For a University not known for having packed audiences at theatrical events, the notion of a performance selling out every night is impressive, to say the least. The notion of a performance selling out every night, weeks in advance, is almost inconceivable — but still, the Black Monologues exist.

Though only in existence for the past three years, the Black Monologues have already staked their claim as one of the most well-known, anticipated and, most of all, necessary theatrical performances at the University. For those unfamiliar with the Monologues, they typically consist of a collection of speeches and skits — a total of 28 this year — that address the black experience in America and often the black experience at the University itself.

Held in the relatively small and bare Helms Theater and utilizing just a wooden crate as a prop, the Black Monologues might at first seem underwhelming. But once its members take the stage, the viewer realizes just how overwhelming the entire production is.

Jessica Harris and Rawdah Fawaz, Director and Assistant Director, respectively, gave a taste of the overwhelming events to follow when they took the stage before the show. They said that a range of emotions were expected — “You might even want to cry.” The directors went on to say, “We welcome all these emotions,” encouraging audience members to laugh, snap their fingers or respond verbally to the monologues as they saw fit. 

Then it was time for the monologues to begin. As expected, the subjects of the skits quickly moved to the events of Aug. 11 and 12, starting with “For My Safety.” This segment featured second-year College student Keiara Price discussing her choice method of dealing with the events’ fallout. “Let’s play a game called ‘Were You at the Rally?’” Price said, explaining that the game could be played with any University students wearing “khaki pants and Hawaiian shirts,” with “any white professor that marks both sides as ‘morally wrong’” and even with “your president, T. Sully.”

A later speech entitled “A Call to Action,” presented by third-year College student Triston Smith, took a more grim and serious stance on the current political state of America. 

“I am wondering why nobody is fighting with us,” Smith said, later adding, “This is your call to action. If nobody else is fighting for us, we must fight for ourselves.”

“Master Jefferson” was another notable speech, presented by fourth-year College student Madison Tatum — one of the standout performers of the night.

“I know of your University. Do you know of mine?” Tatum said, addressing a hypothetical Jefferson.

This was one of the most impressive monologues of the night, with topics focusing on the University’s history of slavery and its relation to the country at large.

“America sold its innocence on auctioning blocks to the highest bidder,” Tatum said, describing the country as the “land of the free where I was enslaved and told to behave.”

One of the most thought-provoking monologues was “Suspension,” starring first-year College student Victoria Hodge and fourth-year College student Michael Scott. The skit depicted the mental agony of deciding between whether to attend protests or to focus on schoolwork. Hodge pondered if the “biggest legacy of the Black Power movement” concerns studies and scholarship, adding that student interest in Black Studies is necessary to keep the classes in existence. Scott acted as the opposing viewpoint, reprimanding Hodge for her lack of involvement in student protest.

The later skit “Taboo: The U.Va. Blues” addressed similar struggles of black students at the University. Featuring third-year College student Tiara Sparrow and first-year College student Salem Zelalem, the joint monologue described some of the many racial inequalities at the University. “I have to be twice as good, twice as fast,” said Sparrow.

Zelalem was another unforgettable performer, delivering dramatic and sometimes tragic monologues. Her “IAT Monologue” was one of the last of the night, and it presented a compelling analysis and critique of the University’s decision to require incoming students to take an implicit association test.

Zelalem criticized the University’s technique as focusing on “a few bad apples instead of rotten roots,” adding that institutions nationwide typically showed preference for a certain demographic.

“They [systems of power] keep happening to favor straight white men on accident,” she said, in one of her several moments of scathing sarcasm of the night.

Zelalem also had a memorable speaking role in “For Your Entertainment,” the only repeated skit from the previous year’s Black Monologues. In it, the entire cast acted as terrifyingly gleeful, agreeable marionettes in a casting call for “black bodies.”

“You need our Black bodies … How many more do you need?” one cast member said.

“Places, everyone!” Zelalem said at the end of the monologue. Every cast member collapsed on the stage as the sound of a gunshot rang out.

The Monologues maintained a steady alternation between the heartbreaking and hilarious, encompassing many aspects of black culture. “Sister / Brother to a Little Black Boy / Girl” was one of the most sobering presentations of the night, in which Hodge and third-year Batten student Nathan John both described what it’s like to grow up black with a sibling among rampant police brutality. “She’s young, but I’m sure she’s seen the videos …” said John.

“Being the sister of a little black boy is where life and nightmares converge,” Hodge said.

Tatum brought back the humor with “Black Rhythm Matters,” the hilarious, second-to-last skit. She described her experience marching on the Rotunda in a monologue that started off serious but took a turn when she said she realized something was off. “The damn whites were offbeat again,” she said.

“Black Rhythm Matters” was the perfect penultimate monologue for the night, as Tatum’s talent for humor was in full force.

“I just wanted to be emotional, and extra, and yell at Theresa …” Tatum said. “I just feel like if my life really mattered to you, you would learn to clap on beat.”

The laughter was undeniably loudest during this skit, as Tatum coined the word “caucacity” and said, “We’re gonna add a rhythm module to your Netbadge.”

Then, Tatum was joined by the rest of the cast for a rousing and impressive final monologue — “Who Are We.”

Everyone on stage assumed various poses as the song “We Are Family” played in the background. “Who are we?” the actors said in unison. “We’re the black-a— monologues.”

It was a notably positive way to end a performance filled with many difficult, sobering realities of race. The combination of all the sketches, with their vastly differing themes and tones, made for a beautiful, realistic portrayal of the black experience at the University and in America — an accomplishment for which the Black Monologues have become famous in just three years.

And this is just a sampling of the 28 monologues. Other notable segments included a skit in which Price and second-year College student Kai Millner criticized the 7 Society for their passive hanging of banners, a touchingly romantic speech in which Tatum told the audience how to “make love to a black woman” and “Dear Mama Africa,” in which John described the identity crisis that comes from not truly knowing one’s roots.

Clearly, there is no way to do the Black Monologues justice in an article. The one takeaway here is that simply reading about this production is not sufficient. Experiencing it in person is the only way to truly understand the power contained within these speeches and skits.

The Black Monologues have shows this Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Though sold out, extra tickets are held at the door for those willing to arrive early.

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