Sonny Kelly was walking down the streets of Fayetteville, when he found himself weeping.
It was April 2015, one week after riots had broken out in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray, a black man who had died in police custody.
It also was one week after Kelly had given his then-7-year-old son, Sterling, “The Talk.”
Kelly says most Americans don’t know what “The Talk” is — when black parents advise their children how to interact with police if they’re stopped.
As kids, Kelly says, they likely weren’t told to “get out of Texas as soon as you can,” like Kelly’s father was. As parents, he says, they might not worry about corrupting their child’s innocence by explaining all the implications of their skin color.
But Kelly does worry, he says. That’s why he broke down in the middle of his hometown, anxious over how The Talk had landed and angry that he’d had to have it in the first place.
Still, the former Air Force officer knew he was right to say something.
“You don’t send an air crew into a threat without briefing them on the surface-to-air missiles that can attack you or the RPGs that can shoot you,” he said. “My job was to prepare the air warrior to go into battle and come back alive.
“So how do I prepare my child to go into the world where he’s going to face battles that are not his, that he does not deserve, but that will come for him?”
Kelly’s conversation with his son that day serves as the crux of his one-man show, “The Talk,” which runs through Feb. 10 at the Durham Fruit and Produce Company, followed by a brief run at UNC’s Historic Playmakers Theatre in Chapel Hill.
In it, Kelly plays almost two dozen characters that have shaped his life, from Langston Hughes and W.E.B. DuBois to Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and North Carolina industrialist and white supremacist Julian Carr.
‘Marked’ and ‘branded’
Kelly recalls being “that black kid” among students of mostly Mexican heritage in his Orange County, Calif., school. As an honors student, Kelly says he did not entirely fit in with the few black kids there, either.
“I used to walk around with a pencil behind my ear,” he said. “One day, one of my black friends said to me, ‘Man, why you always got to try to be so smart? Why you always got to think you’re better than us?’”
Kelly said those words “hurt my heart” because he did not think that way. He struggled to reconcile being himself with what others wanted him to be.
While he said his actions were sometimes “too white” for his black classmates, there were other times, like when he was 16, when he was pulled over in a white neighborhood. The police officer was polite, but never addressed him by his name, calling him “homeboy” instead.
“That was the first time I remember being dehumanized by somebody who had power in a situation where I could not charm my way out of it,” Kelly said. “I couldn’t prove to him that I was more than whatever he thought a ‘homeboy’ was. That was one of those moments where you realize: I just got marked, I was just branded.”
Kelly’s first memory of “The Talk” came while learning to drive. His father told him to keep his hands on the wheel at the 2 o’clock and 10 o’clock positions. In other words, where law enforcement could see them at all times.
“It wasn’t about race, it was about safety,” Kelly said. “But it was a very stern conversation that I could tell was much more about survival than about safety.
“If I were a white kid, he wouldn’t give me that talk.”
Black parents today continue to have this difficult conversation and Kelly says he knows he’ll have to give more talks to his sons, 11 and 7, when they are old enough.
“When my son walks into a room, or is stopped by a police officer, or walks down a street at night, his body — as a black male — performs something,” Kelly said. “Other people respond to that body, whether they like it or not, in certain ways.”
Blackness is, in Kelly’s words, “all encompassing.” Even the least racist people must recognize there is a dangerous significance to being black, he said.
After a career that included stints as a pharmaceutical salesman and youth pastor, Kelly became a Ph.D. candidate in communications at UNC-Chapel Hill. His sons are major reasons why he has chosen to focus his time on youth activism and empowerment.
“They’re going into a world that, frankly, will not love and recognize them for all that I know they are,” he said. “What I need to do as a daddy is protect my boys.”
Kelly’s research includes finding solutions to issues that hurt minority and disadvantaged children, like the academic achievement gap and school-to-prison pipeline. He hopes to instill in black youth that all people should be treated equally, not the idea that “black is better.”
“One of the greatest travesties of justice is to let a child grow up not knowing how beautiful and powerful and capable they are,” he said. “To bind them up in expectation and inferiority complexes, it breaks my heart.”
As Kelly wept along that Fayetteville street, an idea came to him.
He began writing down everything he remembered from the previous week’s discussion with his son, later crafting it into an eight-minute monologue he called “Sterling’s Story.”
Kelly has always had a knack for performance. He was a child actor at 11 and had leading roles in college plays.
So when Kelly brought “Sterling’s Story” into the classroom of Joseph Megal, UNC Artist in Residence, Megel said he immediately knew it should be expanded.
“I was so emotionally affected by the notion of a loving father who only thinks the world of his son, but who in the moment feels he needs to have this type of talk,” Megel said. “It just broke my heart and touched me so deeply.”
Megel, who is also director of “The Talk,” challenged Kelly to dig into his “roots and routes.” That led Kelly to talk to his father and mother about their own “talks” and experiences, such as how his father felt like a pet growing up because strangers would approach black people on the street and touch their hair for good luck.
As “Sterling’s Story” became an hour-long production, Kelly took on the idea of playing 20 characters, including his parents and novelist James Baldwin.
“I’ve seen one-person shows that were self-indulgent, that were just telling a person’s story, but [they weren’t] very interesting,” said Akiva Fox, show producer for Bulldog Ensemble Theater. “What we loved about Sonny’s material is that it combines a really important discussion we’re having in the community with an incredibly personal story.”
Kelly also plays three versions of himself: the father, the son and “The Professor,” a Cornel West-like alter-ego whom Kelly hopes to be be like in the future.
“‘Sonny, you realize this is the Trinity,’” he recalls Megel telling him.
Audiences have already seen previous iterations of “The Talk,” which Megel said is a living document affected by current events. That includes Sterling, now 11.
When Kelly asked his son if the show made him afraid, he replied that they were OK for now because people don’t expect him to have access to weapons or drugs at such a young age.
“He said, ‘I think I’m safer now, but we’ll have to have a talk again.’”
What: “The Talk”
When: Through Feb. 10 at Durham Fruit and Produce Co., 305 S. Dillard St. in downtown Durham. Feb. 14-17 at UNC’s Historic Playmakers Theatre, 122 E. Cameron Ave. in Chapel Hill
Tickets: $5-$20. Thursday performances are $15. Fridays, Saturdays and Sunday tickets are $20, with $2 discounts available for active-duty military, veterans and seniors. Tickets are $10 for patrons under 35 to all shows. UNC students, faculty and university staff receive $10 tickets for all Chapel Hill shows.