I’m starting this Black Box review in a weird place and I need to begin with an odd statement: I do not like urban theater. I define urban theater, known by many names (including “gospel plays” and “inspirational plays”) to be an African American-focused play that follows a woman’s inner turmoil, usually a product of physical abuse by a man. These plays normally take place in contemporary settings and have exaggerated archetypes, Christian messages and music throughout as well as an inspirational message. The most popular producer of urban theater is the famous Tyler Perry.
I say all of these things to say that “Silentious Scream,” created by A. Marie Haugabrook of Progressive Perspective Theatrical, is a piece I consider to be urban theater. It is the story of the Johnson family’s youngest daughter, Byline, who has experienced sexual abuse from her sibling and is doing her best to heal and move forward. Byline – played by electrifying, talented actor Chaunice Kendking (really, the woman had me in tears) – has frequent discussions with her pastor and is in the process of applying to Juilliard to study theatre. The story follows the 17 year old through her struggle to unearth family secrets and emerge whole again.
On the surface, the story is meant to be a positive message to encourage those who are held hostage by the trauma of physical abuse experienced at the hands of someone close to them to speak out. The cast was primarily African American and written by an African American woman. I should be ecstatic; however, I could not shake the feeling of wanting to see more Black stories that do not have rape, drugs or poverty as their subjects. If these subjects do show up, I would like to see them explored differently. Although, credit to “Silentious Scream” for not ending with the principal woman finding the healing she desired in another man.
This was my genuine, initial response. Then I thought, “Who cares how I feel?” This story would not be retold again and again if it did not ring true for Black people and the audiences that love these stories. I did not like the way the person who physically abused Byline was allowed to stay around as if he had done nothing, but that rings true for how family members who sexually abuse their kin are often treated. No one says anything and those hurt are expected to move forward. I did not like the fact that it was about rape and drugs and that it was in the vein of urban theater, but maybe the message needs to be repeated until we embrace the messages of these pieces that are telling us to stop hurting one another and to stop letting addiction destroy our families and our health. And if this is the way we get the message out and people are enjoying it, who am I to say anything? Who am I to tell Black people how to tell their stories? Just because it is not my current experience as a Black woman does not mean it is not true. A woman in the audience of this production may feel less alone and someone who knows a family member being abused may speak up.
Although it was not the type of theater I prefer, I admired the hard work of the cast. They memorized lots of dialogue, worked on a new theater piece (which is not an easy thing to do) and they brought so much energy and stage presence to the production. Haugabrook wrote and directed a new theater piece (which not everyone has the gumption to do), and brought organizations, like the Rape Crisis Center and Battered Women’s Shelter, to speak to the audience. But most of all, Haugabrook spoke her truth and the production had an engaged, devoted crowd ready to receive her message. So congratulations and thank you for continuing to do the work that you do, as a Black woman but also as an advocate for those who need to be heard.