What is the Commons Crit?

Lineage, a multimedia performance piece by spoken word artist Ayanna Albertson, explores a range of emotions from multiple Black familial perspectives: a young child, an irritable mother, an exhausted grandma, and a healing, mature Black woman.

Albertson’s compelling performance allows her to shine effortlessly as she weaves poetry, singing, and acting into her one-woman show, which runs about 20 minutes. Her poetic wordplay triggers both empathy and sympathy among viewers. Black viewers may find resonance with the dark narratives that Albertson shares, while non-Black viewers may in fact experience shame or guilt as they confront depictions of the impact of structural racism on Black domestic life. These responses are a testament to the detailed visual imagery Albertson depicts, coupled with her soulful voice, which is filled with ancestral remnants of the gospels and spirituals. 

The eight-scene piece explores topics that are often considered taboo, such as physical abuse, molestation, homophobia, and state-sanctioned violence against Black lives. But Albertson isn’t concerned with ruffling any feathers; in fact, she completely immerses herself in the complexities of her subject matter. Her unapologetic tone allows her to command viewers’ undivided attention. Despite its candid delivery, Lineage does not allow itself to lean too heavily on triggering events: Albertson also offers moments of joy that celebrate the beauty and strength of Black women while speaking to more positive themes such as hope, survival, and strength.  

In the first scene, Albertson performs “Lineage,” a powerful poem that exposes family secrets rooted in trauma and abuse. It describes the condition of “keeping a clean house”, which, for Albertson, refers to hiding a family’s mess. In this scene, Albertson deftly depicts the harmful, lingering impacts of slavery, which appear through emotionally damaged relationships, physical abuse, hidden secrets, and the silencing of those who are most vulnerable–women and children. 

The second scene includes the performance of an aptly titled poem, “Mama Say.” Albertson continues to explore the major themes from scene one, but rather than centering the childhood experiences of a now-adult woman, she speaks from the perspective of an irritable mother. Albertson relies on popular Black mama cultural sayings (i.e., “You got McDonald’s money”) to emphasize the “tough love” Black mothers are often forced to give their children as a result of needing to prioritize financial stability over affection and love. Often, the inability to establish a nurturing home environment is directly connected to the trauma of slavery passed down through multiple generations.

Albertson performs a beautiful rendition of Common and John Legend’s award-winning song “Glory” in scene four before she transitions to a poem titled “Mourning People.” Her singing voice is so unique and soulful that viewers will wish they had the ability to rewind to their hearts’ desire. The lyrics of “Glory” offer an ounce of hope for Black folks: “One day when the glory comes, it will be ours.” 

“Mourning People” recounts the collective trauma Black communities experience. The words of her poetry pierce the screen and make you think twice about the experiences of others. “For us. The best part of waking up isn’t Folger’s…instead..,.it’s knowing that our mocha latte and espresso skin survived another day in a world that is constantly trying to mug us. We wish this country loved us coffee colored people as much as they love drinking it. Don’t like nothing pure black so they put a little creamer in it,” recites Albertson.

A minimalist design adds to the depth of the performance. The settings, costume, lighting, and sound create intimate spaces that allow viewers to imagine themselves in the speaker’s shoes. At times, the manipulation of the lighting forces viewers to pay even closer attention to the performance. Albertson alters the setting most drastically in scene five, when what was once an intimat—albeit traumatizing—domestic space transforms into the public forum of a comedy club. The staged comedy scene permits Albertson to recite facts about Black communities that are, in reality, not actually funny.

She accomplishes this by performing a solo scene of “the dozens,” an oral legacy tradition for Black folks that is rooted in survival. This brilliant strategy allows her to put forth two arguments. Firstly, America is mostly comfortable with laughing at Black people—and more specifically, laughing at their pain. Her more important point, however, is to emphasize the ways that Black folks have the gift of using humor as a coping mechanism.

For evidence of the former, see the history of early 19th-century minstrel shows and more modernized, digital blackface that appears on social media sites like TikTok. And, for evidence of the latter, peruse Black Twitter and watch some of America’s most talented Black comedians such as Dave Chappelle, Chris Rock, Richard Pryor, and/or Kevin Hart.

Albertson’s use of wardrobe is equally impressive. Each scene incorporates one culturally symbolic garment that is meant to reflect the identity of the speaker: a further sign of her thoughtful intentionality carried to fruition. She utilizes comfortable house clothes that are perfect for Saturday cleaning, the most fitting Black momma attire (a house robe and a bonnet), and a youthful graphic t-shirt that communicates what the speaker desires: change. It doesn’t go unnoticed that Albertson’s hair shifts with each scene as well. It’s impressive to see how a small number of props can be used in a variety of ways to shift the mood or tone of a particular scene. 

Albertson also uses sound as a prop. For example, in the first scene, we hear a doorbell chime as the speaker discusses preparing for company to come over. However, the most effective use of sound occurs in scene four. Albertson performs a monologue titled “Grandma” which offers viewers a deeper understanding of the relationship between Black grandmas and death.

“You see for some, death be a cold touch of reality…but for Grandma, death be just another day,” Albertson says as she turns on an imaginary television. The news then begins to report an overwhelming number of state-sanctioned killings of Black bodies by police officers.  Unfortunately, the story remains similar (i.e., reports of responses to police killings) or the same, even as Alberton repeatedly changes the channel. Sound elements can sometimes be considered minor in a theater production—but in Albertson’s performance, it has a major impact.

Lineage ends with Albertson reflecting on her role as a poet/activist/critical agitator. She has a clear understanding of what will be lost if her voice remains silent. She unpacks the challenges that she and others like her face while at the same time accepting the responsibility with style and grace. Although most of the performance can be categorized as dark and emotionally provoking, Lineage concludes with an ode to Black women.

The last two minutes of the piece include a vocal performance where Albertson, in an equally vulnerable and hopeful state, admits to healing and growing—and most importantly, surviving. The notion of surviving speaks to the broader strength of Black folks everywhere. Albertson closes the performance by reminding viewers of a simple yet powerful message: “We are here for a reason”.

Alberton’s stellar performance is a bold display of the various ways that Black communities experience trauma. Lineage is meant to make viewers uncomfortable, yet it is filled with a range of emotions that encourages healing. She shares narratives that many will relate to and others will learn from.

Lineage is part of the 20/21 Commons Festival at Carolina Performing Arts, presented in digital format. The performance will be streamed online on Friday, February 6th, 2021 at 7 p.m. Free with registration.

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