The Talk: A Message for Our Times

Playwright and actor Sonny Kelly delivers a monologue from his one-man show, “The Talk,” presented last winter. A video version of “The Talk” will be available via live streaming, June 12-July 10. (Durham VOICE photo by Adrianne Cleven.)

THROUGH A TOWNIE’S LENS

By Jock Lauterer

Of late, there has been much talk about “the talk.”

Now, a year and a half after a dramatic play by the same name debuted locally, a video version will begin streaming live and free for a month, beginning June 12. (See details below.)

“The Talk” dramatizes the frank conversation a black father must have with his young son about how to survive in a racially divided nation, especially in regard to responding to encounters with law enforcement officers.

So the message of UNC-CH playwright Sonny Kelly and director Joseph Megel, an artist in residence at UNC, is more relevant now than ever.

Last January, I sent a team of student journalists to cover the show’s opening for the Durham VOICE, the inner-city lab newspaper I lead. The photos here are by UNC student photographer Adrianne Cleven.

Excerpted from our coverage by student reporter Diane Adame:

Kelly, UNC-CH doctoral candidate and writer and performer of “The Talk,” wrote the piece in 2015 after explaining the Baltimore riots to his 7-year-old son, Sterling.

“We learned the source of all of this was a man named Freddie Gray who was arrested and died in police custody,” Kelly said, “and I had to explain to my son that this story revolved around the fact that he was a black man. 

“After explaining that, I looked at my son’s face and realized, he is a black boy and is one day going to become a black man, so this story is an update in his own identity and survival in this world.”

Two weeks later, Kelly found himself weeping about the experience and began typing his thoughts on his cellphone, creating the monologue, “Sterling’s Story,” which he later presented to Megel, artistic director of StreetSigns and artist-in-residence in performance studies at UNC-CH.

Megel responded, “This piece really touched my heart so deeply that I said, ‘Sonny, you need to expand this and make this more, because it is just so powerful… The fact that he was faced with having to say to his son that the world may see him as a dangerous person because of the color of his skin just broke my heart….”

The new video version of “The Talk” is a StreetSigns/Bulldog Ensemble Theater production in association with the UNC-CH Department of Communication. According to a news release from Megel, “PlayMakers Repertory Company is partnering with StreetSigns and Bulldog Ensemble Theater to help bring this video to the widest possible audience. Vivienne Benesch, artistic director of PlayMakers, says, ‘PlayMakers is eager to share with our audiences this healing, eye opening and inspiring play, perhaps more crucial now than ever; and to be able to amplify a new work born at UNC-Chapel Hill and premiered by two essential small theatre companies in our community makes it all the more meaningful.’”

Sonny Kelly, playwright and actor in “The Talk,” introduces his sons, Sterling, 11, and Langston, 8, after a performance of “The Talk” last February. (Durham VOICE photo by Adrianne Cleven.)

Reflecting on the play’s immediate relevance, Kelly told me, “In this season, I am finding that, as agonizing as frustrating as it is to see the videos and hear the bad news, I am more inspired and motivated to get to work telling my story, which is really our story, because I believe it’s time to start draping our nation — that’s the audience — with this connective tissue. So, I’ve been driven!”

Kelly, who earned his doctorate from UNC-CH in May 2019, is now serving as a professor of communications at Fayetteville Technical Community College, where he plans to stage “The Talk” this coming academic year for his students.

“The Talk” ignites and enables conversations, and that’s what inspires Kelly.

“People are at a loss,” he says. “People don’t know how to broach the subject, much less forge solutions. So, I lead with storytelling by putting my skin in the game — and I’ll show you my soft underbelly — I’m really scared for my sons, but I’m also really in love with my country. I am both. I am both, right?”

Director Megel says the timing of this video version of “The Talk” feels like an auspicious coincidence, explaining, “… in the wake of another series of intolerable deaths at the hands of those charged with protecting and serving all the people, we have an opportunity, here and now, and not one minute later, to elevate this long overdue conversation —  and Sonny Kelly has spent a lifetime as a son, as a father, as a scholar preparing to contribute to it.” 


Jock Lauterer began selling newspapers for Jim Shumaker and Roland Giduz on the streets of Chapel Hill at the age of 8. For the last 20 years, he has served as a senior lecturer and adjunct professor at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media, teaching photojournalism and community journalism.

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1 Comment on "The Talk: A Message for Our Times"

  1. Day McLaughlin | June 18, 2020 at 1:37 pm | Reply

    Arguably white parents should also talk to their children about racism. These young people are our future leaders and the more completely they are informed about the missing information in school history books, the more likely they are to be better prepared to ensure positive outcomes for blacks for oppotunities, inclusion, and justice.

    I saw The Talk at the Playmakers, and I am glad to see it is more widely available. As the mother of a white son who knows if he had tried to pass a counterfeit bill he would never have ended up cuffed, face down on the pavement, with policemen on his neck, back and legs. Parents of black children do not have that confidence, which rightly should be theirs too.

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