Locally produced play explores race in a new dialogue
In the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the civil unrest that followed, views surrounding race seemed to differ between black and white Americans. “Dissonance,” a new play developed by Pensacola locals and UWF faculty Marci Duncan and Kerry Sandell, asks the question: can two women of different races have an honest, candid, and open conversation about race?
“It’s a story about friendship, and how sometimes in friendships, there are things that are not talked about because of fear of hurting the other person or because they won’t understand,” Duncan said. “This play kind of follows these two women who have been friends for a long time, and they’ve been forced to have this conversation, a conversation that they’ve never had before.”
When working on a project together just after Floyd’s murder, both Duncan, who is black, and Sandell, who is white, noticed differences in conversations about his death with their adult sons. Both women felt that there was a need to discuss where these differences were coming from.
“So we started dialoguing about it and addressing these things that weren’t being said in a time where in the media, everything was so disparate and divisive,” Sandell said. “We sought to come together and have a conversation to understand where someone else was coming from.”
These real-life conversations, which often took place over Zoom, morphed into a collaborative document where both talked about race and their feelings surrounding it in a judgment free atmosphere. These online conversations would soon mold the framework of “Dissonance.”
Although not directly about George Floyd or the civil unrest of 2020, the play addresses real feelings often perceived by black and white communities during times of racial strife. The George Floyd murder in particular was a catalyst for the development of this play.
Both Duncan and Sandell play the main characters.
“The play talks about our real feelings that we have, of [Sandell] not knowing quite what to say, not knowing quite what to do to support the black community when they are going through this civil unrest,” Duncan said. “I think with my character, we kind of get into the expectations of our white sisters and white brothers without necessarily articulating that, and how this frustration was able to settle in.”
“Both of these sides had their own particular frustrations, but didn’t necessarily know how to get to one another at such a crucial and volatile time,” she added. “The play confronts it head on, and both sides are heard.”
“Dissonance” takes place in Pensacola’s Belmont-DeVilliers District, a historically black neighborhood that has been gentrified over the years. Today, there’s an effort to reinvigorate black businesses in the community. Both characters in the play are business partners opening a cafe in the district.
“We thought that this would be a wonderful backdrop and a wonderful task for these characters to work on, bringing black business back to this community,” Duncan said. “On the outside, it seems like they’re doing the work together, but on the inside, they’ve never really had the conversation about what it means to do the work. We thought that would be a wonderful juxtaposition in the play to have the cafe in this historically black community.”
“Dissonance” had its debut performance this August at Florida A&M University’s Ronald O. Davis Acting Studio, a blackbox theater that seats about 50 people. All four showings had sold out crowds. The matinee show also had a talkback, an opportunity for audience members and actors to express how they felt about the work and the message of the dialogue.
“With the first talkback we had, we learned that some people wanted to have this conversation for decades but never had a safe space to do so,” Sandell said. “It can be a very healing experience.”
Performances of “Dissonance” have had mixed audiences of both black and white individuals. Duncan says that the majority of feedback has been positive.
“A friend of mine came up to me afterward and she was just in tears,” Duncan said. “She was so moved to have seen some of her concerns and some of the things she’s struggling with portrayed on stage.”
“We felt confident that it would be well received, but I don’t think either of us fully appreciated the impact that it would have on people,” Sandell added. “It provided validation for some people, some said it was healing for them, and some said it was very convicting and they had a lot to think about.”
Both Duncan and Sandell say they are proud to produce a play that goes beyond entertaining audiences. They believe that “Dissonance” is edifying to those who may perceive race in different ways and can bring value to all.
“On a grander scale, the play is more about dialoguing and approaching relationships and approaching one another with suspension of judgment, and being willing to listen to another person’s experience,” Sandell said. “As far as I’m concerned, we aren’t prescribing a solution to the unrest from 2020, but we are showing examples of dialogue that’s rooted in a relationship and rooted in love.”
“Dissonance” is set to perform four showings at The Gordon Community Art Center in the Belmont-DeVilliers district on September 2, 3, and 4. The matinee performance on Sep. 3 will feature a talkback after the show.
Both writers say they are blessed to perform “Dissonance” in the neighborhood it takes place.
“I hope that people will remember the example that is set in this play,” Duncan said. “I hope they will see themselves in us, and are encouraged to connect with someone else to really see them for who they are.”
“Someone else’s truth is absolutely valid,” Sandell added. “Just because you haven’t lived out their experience doesn’t mean that it’s not valid.”