Through Sunday, Feb. 17

The Fruit, Durham, Historic PlayMakers Theatre, Chapel Hill

It’s hard to pull upon a single thread in the broad tapestry of African-American experiences without drawing every other fiber with it. Playwright and performer Sonny Kelly faced this overwhelming truth in 2015 while driving his oldest son, Sterling, to elementary school. The radio had news of the Baltimore riots after Freddie Gray died a violent death while in police custody, and Kelly realized that, in order to protect his vulnerable child, it was time to tell him why.

But in the opening scenes of The Talk—a direct, compelling solo show that closes its Durham run at The Fruit this weekend before moving to Chapel Hill’s Historic PlayMakers Theatre for a four-night stand next week—Kelly’s autobiographical character repeatedly freezes in his attempts to start this difficult conversation. His dilemma becomes apparent as he guides us through a potentially endless series of memories and reflections. They propel him back and forth through time, across America, and into his and his family’s past experiences.

Gray’s unjust death evokes the murder of Emmett Till, which beckons across the decades to Trayvon Martin and many others. Kelly notes that all of their parents must have had what we’ve come to know as “the talk.” As one character says, this necessity is a persistent reminder that, for an African American regarded as “infrahuman” by white culture, his “value, his meaning, his humanity, his very life depends in any given moment upon a constellation of factors that far exceed his own reach.”

In this coproduction by Bulldog Ensemble Theater and StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance, directed by Joseph Megel, Kelly, a gifted actor and mimic, revisits these and other tales of injustice. He embodies more than a dozen people, and his painstaking characterizations vividly convey the grief of Mamie Till, the fears of a doting grandmother (in a passage quoted from Howard Craft), the smug racism of white supremacist Julian Carr, and Kelly’s son’s joys and confusions. These, and a brief, crisp cameo as Barack Obama, convey Kelly’s impressive range.

But nothing is more shocking than Kelly’s unmasked terror when his son jostles an arcade claw machine that has taken his money at a movie theater. Kelly forcefully grabs his son for a moment before releasing him, gripped by the fear that the management might call the police on “this unruly black boy … vandalizing their machine.” 

As Kelly’s character processes family narratives and historical tropes, his brief admonition about how to behave in the presence of the police exponentially expands, because a young African-American male today has to know so much more in order to survive. In this prismatic and reflexive work, a racist culture gets a talking-to of its own, one it desperately needs to hear.