What is the Commons Crit?

At this moment last year, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor were all alive.

America was collectively mourning the untimely death of NBA legend Kobe Bryant and his daughter, Gianna Bryant. Black men, those famous and not famous, were able to outwardly express their emotions, many for the first time.

They were given the space to be vulnerable and cry—their hero had just died. But less than a month later, America’s collective mourning of Bryant was disrupted by an act of racial injustice that shook the entire country. 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery was chased and gunned down in broad daylight by a retired police officer and his son in Brunswick, Georgia. Once the video was released and an investigation took place, it was clear that racism was the motivating factor in Arbery’s death. What also became clear was the urgency of the Brunswick District Attorney’s Office to not only defend the father and son duo, but to cover up the crime altogether. This information sparked statewide protests and national support for Arbery.

Not long afterward, the police murder of Breonna Taylor, an unarmed 26-year-old EMT worker in Louisville, Kentucky, became national news. Similar to Arbery’s case, the investigation of Taylor’s murder included a lack of accountability, attempts to blame the victim, and a coverup of police mishaps along the way. Black Americans now equally mourned for Arbery and Taylor, only to have their grieving process once again disrupted by another state-sanctioned Black death—the murder of George Floyd. The summer of 2020 became the summer of racial reckoning. Black communities and their allies became tired of having to process the visible disposability of Black lives in America.

In response to what was happening around him, Eshod Howard (Eternal the MC), a Raleigh-based lyricist and poet, used hip-hop as a way of documenting the nuances of his feelings and frustration—and more important, demand justice. As an artist-in-residence at The Commons Festival 20/21, Howard merges acting and hip-hop to pose a question that is crucial to our times: How can we explain this? This is also the title of his performance piece, which aims to make sense of the racial injustices and state-sanctioned killings targeted against Black communities.

Howard represents a range of emotions that Black folks experience while living day-to-day in America. Each member of the eight-person cast represents a different emotion: Calm (Howard), Surprise (Xavier Gilmore), Anger (Darren “Shamegang” Clark), Hurt (Dizni Deberry), Proud (DS Will), Love (Brandy Corbett), Anxiety/Fear (Kala “Maestra the Emcee” Hinnant), Discontent (Gregory L. Jones II). Aesthetically, the characters and the setting represent characteristics of Black culture. The women all adorn standout natural hairstyles that consist of Afros, box braids, and baby hairs. The cast members, who collectively play a loving Black family, sit around a dining table enjoying what appears to be Sunday dinner. The meal features culinary staples found in Black households such as fried chicken, green beans, mashed potatoes, biscuits, and iced tea. Starting dinner with a prayer, Anxiety/Fear begins by thanking God for their family unit and strong bond.

She then shifts to ask God for protection from the racial unrest in America. This prayer sets the tone of Howard’s piece—Black communities feel unprotected. It is clear to viewers that there is tension at the table, as we see some members of the family struggling to navigate their emotions. This is primarily depicted through the character that represents anger. Anger’s body language is nonchalant as he sits in his chair with his arms folded. It doesn’t go unnoticed that the tone of his voice is also filled with rage.

Within the first few minutes of Howard’s piece, the acting impresses. Each individual remains locked in character. The family’s dinner table talk, though a bit uncomfortable, is executed with raw, unfiltered emotions. Real statistics that reference guilty police officers being financially rewarded via platforms such as GoFundMe are inserted into the dialogue. The conversation also reveals that Black people are not a monolith. There are those who believe that the collective response to police violence should be far more militant and equally aggressive, whereas others have decided to channel their frustration and energy into peaceful organizing, voting, and building wealth. And somewhere in the mix, there are individuals who haven’t fully grasped what’s at stake. Their focus centers individualism over communalism as they fetishize materialistic gains.

This is best portrayed through the character Surprise when he says, “I love us, but we gotta keep it a buck. There’s too many brothers and sisters not tryna put the work in. We hold ourselves back…honestly, I love when they see a young fly nigga like me getting money. It makes them sick to their stomach.” The family attempts to speak some sense into him by questioning his thought process, but unfortunately his thinking is too far gone.

Family dynamics play an integral role in the overall impact of How Can We Explain This?. The parents continuously show each other love and affection. The father maintains a dominant temperament, adhering to traditional familial roles. The media has often portrayed Black families as without fathers, depicting them as matriarch-led with the implication that they are “broken.” Howard is clearly pushing back against this narrative. His character even performs a duo with his onstage father.

Important questions related to racial justice, structural inequities, and community relationships and are asked throughout the piece: “Why are there systems in place perpetuated to keep [Black people] down?”…“How is it that in this day and age, we have to continue living through all these atrocities?”…“How can someone look at me and for no other reason than the fabricated truth, feel like they are superior to us?”…“How can we show them that we are not going back to a past that [white people] want us to see and ultimately teach?”…“How many times do we have to explain to them that we ultimately just want peace?”

The 45-minute performance features eight tracks that fit neatly within the realm of politically conscious protest music. Rhetorically, the title of each track evokes its message: “Enough,” “Black Survival,” “Abolitionists,” “Power Moves,” “Lift Me Up,” “We at War (You Feel it Yet),” “How Can We Explain This?,” and “I Believe in You.” One thing that will stand out for many hip-hop heads is the impeccable production of Howard’s tracks. They offer the perfect boom-bap vibe which forces listeners to bop their heads. Howard also uses live recordings from the protests that occurred all summer long. Not only does this technique tap into viewers’ emotions, but it solidifies the inspiration and context of the piece as well as the themes embedded in the performance.

Although the lyrical content of the music is powerful and adds a necessary sonic backdrop to the skits, there are a few moments where Howard’s performance falls flat. Whether this is a result of his not quite catching the beat on time, pronouncing his lyrics in a somewhat blurry manner, or struggling to maintain control of his breathing, I’d argue that these mishaps can be credited to performing without a live audience.

In an imagined world without a global pandemic, the recording studio would have been filled with family, friends, fans, and supporters whose energy would have fed Howard’s performance. Further, when a production is live, a performer only gets one chance at success, and these heightened stakes can often fuel an artist’s energy. In this particular context, Howard and his team of actors worked hard with videographer Devonte Soileau to record for 10 hours, shooting some scenes over five times or more. Their commitment to the creative process is unmatched, yet one wonders what may have gotten lost in the departure from live performance.

Overall, How Can We Explain This? is a beautifully written, thought-provoking performance piece that is executed by a talented group of actors and emcees. Viewers will be able to see the emotional depth of Black men and women–their fears, their hopes (or lack of hope,) their desires and wishes. Hopefully, after watching, Black folks won’t have to do any more explaining.

“How Can We Explain This?” 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 12, 2021 at 7 PM. Free with registration at carolinaperformingarts.org.

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