Kelly said he suffered a moment of “generational trauma” after having the same conversation about Blackness that his ancestors had to have for centuries.
Out of this emotion, Kelly created an eight-minute narrative piece about this conversation with his son. Since 2015, the story has developed into an hour-long, theatrical performance with the help of Joseph Megel, artistic director of StreetSigns Center for Literature and Performance.
The center is producing “The Talk” in association with Bulldog Ensemble Theater and the Department of Communication at UNC.
Elisabeth Lewis Corley, producer of "The Talk" and a member of the Board of Directors at StreetSigns, said she has seen the production in all its manifestations since 2015.
“This is a conversation that is so desperately needed on so many levels,” Corley said. “I was thrilled to say yes (to putting on the show). We should put the full force of our tiny company behind it.”
The show, however, is more than just a conversation between a man and his son. Kelly used pieces of history and literature as well as experiences of his family members to write "The Talk." It encompasses a vast range of experiences of racial America, from that of the modern Black man to James Baldwin to Robert E. Lee.
The 20 characters include Kelly’s sons, his mother and father, his grandmothers and grandfather and the police officer that pulled him over when he was sixteen. Various figures that shaped Kelly’s life and identity also appear, including Barack Obama, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Langston Hughes and Paul Gilroy.
The decision to play all the characters is based not only on Kelly’s love for storytelling and performing but also the notion that it depersonalizes the experience of the conversation.
“Both of my sons asked if they could be in it,” Kelly said. “But I don’t want the audience members to place a face on a particular person because I want them to know that my child could be any child.”
If one person playing 20 characters seems hectic, Kelly intends it to be so. He said the performance allows the audience member to see into his head and the mental gymnastics he had to do as he navigated the talk with his son.
The talk struck Kelly’s life again in 2017 when the Charlottesville riots sparked a similar conversation.
“My youngest son asked me, ‘Daddy, are the neo-Nazis gonna get me?’” Kelly said. “Daddy’s supposed to say no, right? But I can’t honestly say that, so what do you say?”
Kelly realized that his response to his son was informed by a collective understanding of race that comes from his family to various historical figures, many of whom form the cast of characters in "The Talk."
Kelly’s hope for the performance is to bring honor and truth to all of those people and to spark a conversation in the community.
Each performance will feature a talkback with the audience afterwards. A press release from StreetSigns said the panel will include “scholars, representatives of law enforcement, educators and civic leaders.”
Corley said the talkback is important and impactful for everyone involved.
“The whole show asks the question ‘can we talk?’” Corley said. “The talkback is an opportunity to bring in more voices besides Sonny’s and for Sonny to listen to the way the audience has received his work.”
Kelly hopes the conversations between the panel and the audience will be authentic, vulnerable and sometimes uncomfortable.
Kelly said the most painful part of the process was bringing his research home. During "The Talk," Kelly performs a part of Julian Carr’s speech from the installation of Silent Sam.
“It is ugly, but I think it’s so important to open the way for real discussions,” Kelly said. “If we’re going to talk, just humans to humans, we have to look at the ugly stuff too.”