This weekend, Bwog staffer Jessica Hu had the chance to attend NOMADS’s (Columbia’s theatre group for student-written plays) showing of “Linguistic Features of AAVE”, a moving play that represents the daily lives of black women in America, written by Kay Kemp (CC ’22) and directed by Madison Hatchett (BC ’22).
Content warnings: violent racism and multiple instances of sexual assault.
This past Friday and Saturday, “Linguistics Features of AAVE” sold out, and for good reason. In director Madison Hatchett’s words, this play “moves far beyond the scope of any stage, of any one person, of any college campus, into the daily lives of black women in America.”
The story centers around Zy, played by MoniQue Rangell-Onwuegbuzia (CC ’22), a young black girl who left her two sisters, Xemena and Yakini, played by Mia Flowers (BC ’23) and Eva Tesfaye (CC ’20) respectively, to attend college in a different city. The two older sisters persuade Zy to go to college and gift her a Columbia University sweater. In flashback scenes, the three sisters fight over passing the salt, serving the greens to each other at dinner, and complain about their English teacher together.
Most of the play involves Zy’s college experience, specifically, her time at a frat/dorm party. Everyone else at this party is white and named Percy (played by Alethea Harnish CC ’23, Jackson Davis CC’22, Callum Kiser CC’21, and Joseph Meyer CC’23). (Yeah, I know, four Percys. What a rager.) The conversation that Zy has with the Percys elicited more than a few laughs from the audience. “Headass is an adjective,” she says. “Huh?” Percy responds. Or my favorite, “You’re cute. For a white boy.” Mid-scene, the two other sisters prance on stage and provide much-needed commentary that is not only hilariously acted out but also highlights the injustice peppered within Percy’s speech – his disrespect towards Zy’s use of AAVE (African American Vernacular English), and the racist implications of his entitlement towards Zy’s company. At the end of the party, Percy walks Zy home. He rapes her.
The timeline of the play could be slightly confusing, as it is not linear, and many scenes are repeated. Coupled up with the fact that scenes are sometimes paused so Xemena and Yakini can provide commentary, it was definitely not an easy play to process and understand. However, I think part of the response that this confusing timeline elicited with me was intentional. The sense of anxiety and the knowledge of the impending doom had me gripping the edge of my seat by the end of the play.
The realization of the play itself was, for me, someone who hasn’t been to a theatre show since my own 6th-grade production of Charlie’s Angels, mindblowing and breathtaking. Rangell-Onwuegbuzia’s performance and facial expressions revealed so much about what was going on in Zy’s head. The sisters had such incredible chemistry that I teared up towards the end of the play when I remembered the opening scene with them fighting over dinner about who would run the household.
The Percys, Harnish especially, did such an amazing job of portraying the worst kind of people you’ll meet at college that multiple times my friend, who was sitting beside me, told me I looked like I was about to sock someone in the face. (I’m really, really sorry.) The set was a literal spinning and rotating wall and door that juxtaposed the sisters’ home with the party’s arsenal of alcohol. There was a horse. There was a gold picture frame flying in from the sky.
That being said, this content warning should definitely be taken seriously. In the pamphlet, there is a list of resources available at Columbia for anyone who needs support. Going into the play, I did not expect certain scenes to be so difficult to watch that I had to look away at one point. There is a graphic scene of sexual assault that is repeated twice, and another scene involves a segregated pool and physically violent racism. Towards the end of the play, Zy interacts with a female version of Percy. She puts on a valley girl accent, and even when she expresses her jealousy towards Percy’s freedom as a white woman, Percy completely disregards her. At the end of the scene, again, she is raped. The hopelessness in the scene could be felt in the audience. Perhaps it is due to the actors’ amazing acting that those scenes were so heart wrenching, but I certainly appreciated the announcer’s warnings before the play.
The violence that permeates the play is so real, but it also serves as a reminder that this is what black women live through every day. The actual physical acts of violence that are shown on the stage happen both at colleges like ours and everywhere else in this country. You might see yourself in the play (from either Zy or Percy’s angles); you might not. Regardless, this play serves as a reminder to try your best to not just look, but see a little more.
banner via NOMADS