On the barebones stage, two dozen black women and girls stood shoulder-to-shoulder, moments away from re-opening vulnerable memories as a constellation of storytellers.
Scrapmettle Entertainment Group debuted its sixth edition of the Black Mama Monologues at the Caldcleugh Multicultural Arts Center in Greensboro’s Smith Homes area on Oct. 19. Local actors — some experienced and others new to the stage — recounted memories of their own girlhoods and motherhoods in the monologues fellow cast members performed.
The community-sourced nature of the material manifests in a unique production each year, but as 53-year-old Angela Williams Tripp, chief of research and development at Scrapmettle, explained during the opening act, “Black Mamas covers all black mamas: the good ones, the bad ones, the ones in between, the bougie and the ghetto — all of them.”
While several documented kind mothers soothing the confusion and undue embarrassments of girls’ pubescence, other scenes showcased emotionally abusive mothers who became the primary drivers of their daughters’ shame.
In her script for “Mirrors,” Karin Johnson, 37, wrote about her experience as an unwanted child, an artifact of her mother’s rape. Bennett College senior Ameria Webster, 22, portrayed Johnson’s stories.
“It took me a while to do the stories because I couldn’t relate at first,” Webster said. “I had to do my character analysis and try to make it my own.”
Johnson said Webster did her stories justice.
The piece began as Johnson’s childhood self — portrayed by her daughter, Michaela — emerged from one of three elementary wooden frames representing mirrors to retell a memory from age 7. She approached her mother with caution in a bathroom smelling of harsh hair chemicals.
“Mommy, do you think I could get a perm?” she asked.
“Mommy, do you think I’m pretty?”
Her mother scanned her body, suggesting that she would probably look better when she grew older. She sent the girl to fetch cigarettes, a symbol Johnson always places in pieces she writes about her chain-smoking mother.
Webster, as adult Johnson, emerged from her frame, saying, “Despite being your mirror image, I hide myself under makeup and big hair pieces because I’m scared that others can look at me and be able to tell I didn’t come from any act of love but the opposite.”
“Regardless of how I was conceived, I’m a part of you,” Webster proclaimed. “Did you ever even try to love me? Did you?”
In stark contrast, Kevita Coleman, a local dance teacher, gave an uplifting performance, an ode to the perfect mother, named Pecan Pie. A warmhearted pillar of her community, Pecan Pie collected nuts from neighborhood trees and made perfect pies every year.
“I think it’s very important to show that some of us have some not-so-great mamas and some of us have mamas that couldn’t do any wrong anywhere ever in life,” said Coleman, 31. “A lot of times you don’t really hear the backstory… and it’s important to show, well, they did this bad thing but they always made sure we had everything we needed to survive. They’re complex people.”
Vignettes such as those Tripp wrote about her crack-addicted mother were indicative of those ironies. They largely elicited laughter and respect for an unapologetic woman who bowed down to no one. Heavier stories, though, ranged from childhood sexual abuse to the narrative of a Haitian immigrant all but enslaved as a house servant in 1963 America.
Like the actors and their stories, transitional music spanned decades. Lil Wayne’s “Mirror on the Wall” didn’t seem out of place 20 minutes after the O’Jays’ “For the Love of Money.” A handful of dance numbers served as welcome breaks from monologues, offering the audience a pause from a somewhat lengthy emotional rollercoaster.
In a particularly affecting performance, Taajia McLaughlin, 16, danced around four women sitting on black crates who embodied Aunt Sarah, Saffronia, Sweet Thing and Peaches from Nina Simone’s “Four Women,” in which Simone sings from the first-person perspectives of four women of color.
Despite how compelling the pieces are for audiences, the biggest takeaway from Black Mama Monologues may be for participants.
Scrapmettle’s chief of ideas and operations Kerri Mubaarak, 48, said sharing stories with each other is always a therapeutic process.
“It makes people feel like what they come with has some kind of value,” she said.
Johnson, for one, found catharsis in the writing process.
Learn more about Scrapmettle and upcoming performances at scrapmettle.net.
“For me, it was the first time I started dealing with the issues I had with my mother who wasn’t affectionate and didn’t want me,” Johnson said. “That helped me to acknowledge what happened to me and start the healing process. That’s why I wrote ‘Mirrors’ — I was able to touch on me as my mother, me as I am now and me as a child.”
Johnson’s 16-year-old daughter said working on Black Mama Monologues together sparked conversations about their relationship off-stage.
“Some stuff I didn’t understand,” said Michaela Johnson, a Scrapmettle veteran of more than 11 years herself, “but since I was in the play watching the other stories I started to understand why my mom does some of the stuff that she do and why she acts the way she acts.”