Chris James, 28-year-old poet and playwright from Little Rock, admits there are moments in his new social comedy “Dear Black People” (Nov. 17-18 at Ashé Cultural Arts Center) that might touch a nerve.
In a scene called “Attempted Robbery,” the show takes on the mostly friendly and often hilarious insult battles known as roasts.
“One of the most popular concepts in roasting in the black community is talking about things like our hair and our skin complexion,” said James. “Jokes like, ‘Boy, you so black, if I turn the lights off I won’t see nothing but your teeth and eyes.’ Or, ‘Your nose is so big I bet you can smell what The Rock is cooking.’”
James has fun with the jokes, but he also examines the unintended consequences.
“We call the scene ‘Attempted Robbery” because from a very early age we are attempting to rob each other of what’s beautiful about us,” said James. “It’s what makes us different — our nappy hair, our dark skin, our big lips and noses.”
That's just one of the complications and complexities that James explores in “Dear Black People,” a one-act show featuring a cast of six performers addressing issues James believes are essential to understanding the contemporary black experience.
The show is making a return engagement to New Orleans. It was presented Aug. 5 at Ashé, during a fierce storm that flooded major parts of the city.
"Despite that, folks showed up, stayed, waited out the power outage and saw an amazing show," said Viola Johnson Blunt, communications director for Ashe, the Central City community and art facility.
James said he set out to write a play about black culture in America and stereotypes perpetuated in the black community.
“It talks about conflicts such as low self-esteem in the black community, the effects of hip-hop music in the black community, and this myth of black criteria, this unspoken list about what it takes to be black,” he said.
“I wanted to write a short piece that serves as almost a letter to black people, a public service announcement — this is what we do, this is what we need to stop doing, these are the solutions.”
While James describes his younger self as “a kid who felt like he didn’t have a voice,” the accomplished poet, playwright and teacher not only found his voice, but he’s now inspiring others to do the same.
“Dear Black People” has played in Little Rock, Memphis and Atlanta, and after each performance there’s an opportunity for audiences to discuss their own views on the issues raised in the show.
When James isn’t taking the conversation to the stage, he’s taking it to schools. As an integrated arts educator, James has partnered with schools in Arkansas and Georgia to visit classrooms and teach creative writing and poetry to kids of all ages.
As his inspiration, he cites writers like Shakespeare and Ntozake Shange (whose 1975 poetic drama “For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf” was especially influential), but he also recalls a seventh-grade science teacher, Pilar Murphy, who caught him writing poems in the back of her classroom and, much to his surprise, encouraged him to keep at it.
“Poetry saved my life, and I’ve seen it impact the lives of young people across the country,” James said. “It’s important to me to offer poetry as an outlet for young people, because they do have something to say. Their voices do matter.”
James hopes that his voice will resonate not just within the black community, but beyond. He believes that developing cross-cultural competencies is essential for navigating an increasingly polarized and divisive society, and that requires more than just preaching to the choir.
“This isn’t just a play for black people, it isn’t just for young people or old people. It’s a play for everybody,” James said. “This play is meant to be a mirror for some, and a cultural baptism for others.”
"Dear Black People"
WHEN: Nov. 17-18
WHERE: Ashé Cultural Arts Center
1712 Oretha Castle Haley Blvd.
TICKETS: $20/$30 VIP
INFO: (504) 569-9070