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.
“A Change is Gonna Come” was released on December 22, 1964 by Sam Cooke. Soulful as well as insightful, Cooke’s lyrics have resonated with the black community for over half a century. On September 24th, 2016 the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) held its dedication ceremony with notable guests such as Oprah Winfrey, Ava DuVernay, and Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) who fought Congress unapologetically for 15 years for the museum to come into fruition. Both President Barack Obama and Michelle Obama, alongside former President George (who was instrumental in signing the museum bill back in 2003) and Laura Bush joined together to commemorate this once in a lifetime moment. From the thousands watching on the National Mall to those sitting at home or streaming live on the NMAAHC’s app, no one could deny the excitement, admiration, and sense of solidarity.
Leading up to the dedication, a select few were able to preview the museum before it opened to the public. However, for me, I wanted to wait and see it with the one person who means the world to me…my mom. Securing the coveted time passes almost a month in advance was the least I could do for her. On September 25th we arrived early to be greeted by gridlocked traffic, street closures, tight security and extremely long lines. Yet we were not deterred. We entered hand in hand, knowing we were in for an awakening in mind, body, and spirit.
Our first (and my only stop for that day) was the Oprah Winfrey Theater. There, Ava DuVernay’s voice on August 28th played recalling the importance of that particular day throughout African American history. Events ranging from Emmett Till’s death to the March on Washington flashed across the screen. A reminder for some, an introduction to others. Leaving my mother there for a photo assignment had to be one of the hardest things for me; yet the stories she told when we met later that night left me in awe of all that I had missed.
Luckily, someone was nice enough to give me two additional tickets for the very next day. Call me selfish, but I longed to see with my own eyes all that I heard. Once again we encountered long lines and tightened security, on the other hand the gridlocked traffic and street closures had thankfully dissipated. Once again we walked hand in hand through those heavy glass doors, however this time we started together on the lowest level which represented the transatlantic slave trade. It took us four hours to navigate. When we arrived to the second level…we stopped. It was a difficult decision. Nonetheless we made it. Not only to savor and digest all we had observed, but to take time and reflect.
Upon our departure, a 95 year old woman awaited with her family to board an elevator up to the entrance level. While waiting a bystander who happened to be the singer Betty Entzminger began to serenade her with “A Change Is Gonna Come.” Holding hands the two exchanged this poignant moment that we along with others were allowed to witness. Snapping a photograph, I begin to tear up for many reasons. I thought of my grandmother who is also 95 and hoped that she too will get to see this milestone with her own eyes. For my mother who grew up in Alabama during some of the most turbulent times in America’s history. But also for all the beautiful faces, both young and old. Never had I felt so safe in a public space. Never had I felt the overwhelming positive energy of so many people who looked in some capacity like me. I cannot wait to go back, and will try to at least once a month. Although Cooke’s lyrics still strike a powerful chord, Lonnie G. Bunch, Founding Director of the NMAAHC, captured my sentiments exactly…”This building will sing for all of us.”
Photos by Jai Williams
Jai Williams’ book, The Plantations of Virginia, will be published by Globe Pequot Press February, 2017.
National Museum of African American History and Culture
10th Street and Constitution Avenue, NW