What is the Commons Crit?

The griot sits outside in a rocking chair on a cool Carolina day. A blanket is tossed about his shoulders and a guitar sits in his lap as he leisurely strums in a hypnotic rhythm. Then, with a voice like that of your next-door neighbor, he begins his tale of history, culture, politics, and possibilities for the place we like to call home: North Carolina.

Johnny Lee Chapman III’s Southern (Dis)Comfort takes us on a guided tour of the well-known and little-known histories of our state. Chapman assumes the role of poet, serving as both a documentarian and a commentator who gives perspective to the stories he tells. A view of North Carolina history told by a descendant of enslaved Africans gives a fresh interpretation of the narratives presented in the work. Chapman doesn’t stand on the sidelines in his tellings or judgements.

Style and form are foundational to this work. Chapman uses a combination of spoken word, traditional storytelling, and character acting to move between segments within stories, as well as between the narratives. The histories aren’t told in a strictly linear fashion. Rather, Chapman organizes his tales by region and geography. This allows him to explore some of the richness of the diverse regional cultures around the state.

In a mere 30 minutes, Chapman goes from telling the audience about how Andrew Jackson’s betrayal of Indigenous people led to the 1838 forced migration of members of the Cherokee Nation along the Trail of Tears and genocide, to college basketball rivalries, to our beloved tradition of BBQ, where Chapman acknowledges the ongoing debate between fans of tomato-based and vinegar-based sauces.

The trek Chapman takes us on begins on the coast, where he shares information about our state’s most infamous Carolinian: the pirate Blackbeard. Moving inward, tales of the “Lost Colony” of Roanoke are explored, along with the multiple theories about its disappearance. There is also the history of Bath, the state’s first port, along with many other towns and counties that make up the Carolina story. For the majority of my life, I’ve lived in North Carolina—not more than 90 minutes from Fuquay Varina—and I had no idea where the name came from until viewing Southern (Dis)Comfort.

But do not think that this work is simply a list of names, dates, places, and obscure facts. It is an embodied telling that offers incisive critique. It is the way Chapman lays out his critique that makes his points hit like a hammer against the glass of our misunderstandings about certain moments in history. These misconceptions are founded on either excuses, justifications, simplifications, or blatant gloss-overs and omissions from mainstream historical narratives.

For example, during his telling of the story of Andrew Jackson, Chapman points out the irony that the same man who signed a treaty promising peace would later be the same man who brought death and near genocide to the Cherokee. The story of Soul City is another example. Here, Chapman tells us how the late senator Jesse Helms transformed a successful bid for African Americans to buy land into grounds for building a site for toxic waste and a prison. Then there is the story of Goldsboro, the city where I spent the early part of my childhood.

Here, Chapman recounts the history of the establishment of the Asylum for the Colored Insane, an institution built for ex-slaves suffering the trauma that one might expect would accompany rapes, whippings, working from dusk to dawn, being fed scraps to eat, and seeing one’s children sold. Chapman tells us about how ex-slaves became “patients” and worked the surrounding fields like prison laborers. The “crime” these people committed was that of seeking help for mental anguish. This story is one of more than a few that he lays bare.

Much like Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, the most engaging aspect of this work is Chapman’s own reflection of his personal history and place in the larger story. He holds up a light to the little-known history about the power and legacy of our state’s historically Black colleges and universities. His love for UNC, his alma mater, is genuine. Yet he doesn’t ignore his feelings about Silent Sam or the Unsung Founders Memorial—the monument on campus intended to honor the contributions of African Americans to the University.

In several of these narratives, Chapman assumes a character from the historical period of his story. These variations offer a nice change to the format. We have a chance to lean in closer, as one tends to do with first-person narratives. In this storytelling mode, we learn a story about fugitive slaves in the Great Dismal Swamp. The narrative is powerful in voice and presentation, made even more so by filmmaker Wo Agbaza’s lighting and videography.

When I spoke with Chapman in an earlier interview for the INDY, he intimated that he was a fan of the gothic writer Anne Rice, who inspired the term “Golden Moment” (Chapman also uses this term for his photography work). While his admiration of Anne Rice was not surprising, I did find his inclusion of the macabre in our state’s story interesting—and damn eerie. For example, Chapman informs us that the Devil’s Tramping Ground in Bear Creek, North Carolina is a circle in a field where nothing living will grow. It is said that the Devil walks in a circle here, plotting against humanity…definitely not on my personal list of dope and fun places to visit! Nevertheless, it’s a rich part of North Carolina’s story.

Chapman also tells us ghost stories, mentioning the names of places like Transylvania County, North Carolina. Despite its ominous name, he assures us that the county is not full of vampires—rather, its name means “Across the Trees.” All the material, stories and histories are interwoven with beautiful poetry that highlights the landscape of our state. Chapman’s description of our rivers, forests, beaches, and mountains sounds to the listener’s ear the way most of us wish a travel book would read.

More than a decade ago, hip-hop artist, teacher, and philosopher-poet KRS-ONE defined art that both teaches and entertains as “Edutainment.” The diversity of topics, embodied storytelling, and sharp commentary found in Southern (Dis)Comfort make it just that. Edutainment at its best. It is time well spent for the experience.

Southern (Dis)Comfort 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 19, 2021 at 7 PM. Free with registration at carolinaperformingarts.org.

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