At a time when so many people in positions of power are working so hard to revise history and gaslight the general public, every voice that speaks to the truth of the powerless, to the disparity of treatment toward people of different colors or religions, and to the suffering of the innocent is a voice we heed. Angela Polite’s is one of those voices, and her (mostly) one-woman show, Mary Speaks, looks back through generations of black women, and tells their combined stories as a parallel to the life of Mary, mother of Jesus. With music and lyrics of her own creation, it’s a heartfelt portrayal of how mothers and grandmothers have struggled over the last 150 years to try to make their children safe in a hostile country that still claims it’s free and equal.
Mary Speaks began as an assignment by Polite’s pastor, Reverend Henry A. Belin III of the First AME Bethel Church in Harlem. It has grown into a moving series of stories about black mothers and sons, the love and history that bonds them, and the fears and dangers that often beset them.
The production is stripped down. Polite doesn’t have flashy props or much in the way of a set. It’s mostly about her body and her voice, which changes dramatically to suit whichever of the many characters she portrays throughout. She also has an accompanist, Christopher Burris, also her director, who plays the music she has written as she sings the lyrics she wrote. It’s a small production, but Polite’s performance is fully from the heart.
The vignettes are also extremely relevant. From the slave auction to the modern mother concerned that her playful son will end up imprisoned for his cheek (or, more terrifying, at the end of a rope, as was the sad end for the wrongly accused and lynched Emmett Till) these stories resonate. There is no one American experience, but certain Americans have experienced much harder times than others.
Being a minority in America has never been easy, and despite all the decades that have gone by, it has not gotten much easier. That we are seeing performances like Mary Speaks, like Hidden Figures, like Moonlight—pieces of artistic endeavor that bring the black experience to a wider audience—is incredibly important right now. When revisionists would argue that the kind of racial prejudice we see now in rising KKK violence and vandalism is something new, these works remind us that not knowing about terrible or tragic events doesn’t mean they didn’t happen.
We are living in a time when the future is even more uncertain, when racism is not being fought as it should be by those in power. The best way to change minds is to make them feel the hurt, the sorrow, to see the shame of their actions against the less powerful and less privileged. Every voice that speaks for justice and equality is a voice for hope. Mary Speaks shows that anyone can hear the message and become the voice.
Mary Speaks was performed at the Theater for the New City’s Community Space Theater.