Why are people racist? This is the question Kimberly Monks set out to answer when she started writing her play, Hands of Color, running at Synchronicity Theatre June 7–30. The search for the answer to this centuries-old question sent Monks to YouTube, where she found videos describing racism as a mental illness. But she thought things were more complicated than that. So, she made Hands of Color a social experiment in which a white man is forced to walk in a black man’s shoes for a day.
Monks, a graduate of Vanguard University, is no stranger to the stage, having accrued several acting credits in Minneapolis and Canada. However, Hands of Color is her first writing credit. She workshopped the play with Synchronicity in 2018 and over the course of the rehearsal process made changes to characters, plot points and tone, but the original conceit has remained the same.
Shortly after making a racially charged decision that costs a black man his life, Thomas (played by Justin Walker) finds himself walking a mile in another man’s shoes — literally. Not just any man’s either: He is forced to live the life of Robert (Enoch King), the man he indirectly killed, with only Robert’s young daughter, Stephanie (Therecia Lang), recognizing him for who he is. This is, in Monks’ words, where “Freaky Friday meets A Christmas Carol.”
The topic of the play is incredibly timely given the prevalence of news about black men being killed by police and black people having the police called on them. We asked Monks a few questions about the process of writing a play with such heavy, pertinent themes, and about the process of bringing it to life.
ARTS ATL: Can you tell us what your play is about?
Kimberly Monks: [The play] is not about racism as much as it is about the conditions of racism and how one man who was raised a certain way, taught certain things, makes a decision that alters the rest of his life. The man calls the police on a person simply because he’s African American. It ends up costing the man his life, but it also ends up costing Thomas his life. You have two stories taking place: one of a man who is forced to walk in the shoes of someone who is African American, and we also learn that Robert, the African American man, was trying to compromise his blackness, compromise who he is as a means of survival. So, we have both of these stories unfolding at the same time.
ARTS ATL: Where did the concept for this play come from?
Monks: The concept was actually inspired by a picture that my professor at UC San Diego, Deborah Stein, showed me. We were doing activities to get through our writers block, and one of those activities was to look at images and, from them, come up with a play title. She showed us a picture of a set of distorted, colorful hands. That’s where the title came from. I didn’t really, fully flesh out the concept until days later. I couldn’t sleep at night; I was haunted by this idea of literally walking in another person’s shoes. Because we say it all the time: “You couldn’t walk a day in my shoes.” And my whole thing was, “What if someone could?” I know in the black community, we really like to hold on to our pain. It’s ours, no one else understands it, no one else gets it; we like to hold it dearly and nearly to us, and we kind of carry it with pride. And I wanted to challenge that — I really wanted someone white to walk in the shoes of someone African American. Because nothing else seems to work — we go through these inclusion trainings, social media has made it a big thing, [and] you can have access to books and history, but that’s not working.
ARTS ATL: What do you think makes this an ideal show for Synchronicity Theatre?
Monks: Synchronicity encourages bold voices and just raw, honest truth. And it lines up with my mission, as a writer — just to be able to say whatever the heck I want to say, how I want to say it, no matter who it makes uncomfortable, because that’s the point of theater. If it doesn’t make you uncomfortable, if it doesn’t piss you off, if it doesn’t stir something in your soul, then it’s merely entertainment. And my work is not that. This play is raw; this play is going to piss a lot of people off, get a lot of conversations started, break a lot of hearts, and that’s the point.
ARTS ATL: Is there a character in whom you most see yourself?
Monks: I really see myself in Thomas and Stephanie — the two main characters. I am Stephanie. She says it how it is; her black girl magic radiates through her, her ability to love. And Thomas, just in the way that life happens to him, and it created a perspective that he thought was right and justified because it’s all he knows. To see everything he thought he knew start to unravel, and what that does to him — I’ve been there.
ARTS ATL: Is there a character most like people you’ve encountered in real life?
Monks: I encounter the white women in the play — Jesse [Thomas’ sister-in-law] — she was inspired by a real person. I encounter her in my workplace; I encounter her on the street. Jesse has changed now — she’s a little bit more conscious, but she still has a ways to go. Now, she’s conscious of her own bias and her own microaggressions, [and] she’s conscious of her complicity in racism and the privilege that comes with being white. The fact that this man was shot and killed in her neighborhood — this has awakened her, and she’s headed in the right direction. I’ve definitely experienced the Jesses of the world.
ARTS ATL: What do you hope that the audience walks away thinking and feeling?
Monks: Damn, is that me? That’s what I hope the thought is. Have I done that? Have I said that? Have I thought that? I want those self-aware questions to start happening; I want people to start doing some real heart-digging. I just want people to see themselves in these characters and ask, “How am I complicit in hate?” More than discussions happening, I want this play to haunt people. Like Robert haunts Thomas in the play, I want Robert to haunt every single person who sees this show. I want Thomas to haunt folks.