Charles Stephens: On problems and perspective

A few weeks back I was co-hosting a staged reading of the Tarell Alvin McCraney play, "Choir Boy," and I ended up in a really horrible mood. I forced a smile onto my face nonetheless and hoped for the best, determined to soldier on. The traffic had been awful, and there was an annoying beeping sound filling the space where our event was being held. But by the end of the evening, I felt silly for obsessing over such trivial things. An unexpected conversation at a critical moment can have that impact on you.

We (Counter Narrative Project, Mobilizing for Action through Planning and Partnerships [MAPP] and Staticc Productions) decided to organize this event because black LGBTQ kids are terrorized in schools around this country, as well as in Atlanta, and it seemed like a useful strategy to amplify the issue. We wanted the staged reading to spark dialogue and hopefully inspire action. The best art always does.

So I was running around like a maniac, trying to get the beeping noise inside the space to stop. The beeping noise seemed to keep getting louder and louder, threatening our event and my sanity. Luckily my friend Jay Ray was managing the event, and he is masterful at putting people at ease.

I ended up going outside for a moment to take a deep breath and to greet our guests as they walked in. I was still stressed and anxious. In the parking lot I saw a middle-aged black man sort of standing around as if he were waiting for someone. I greeted him and asked if he was there to see "Choir Boy."

"No. What's that?" he asked.

I told him it was a play about a kid who's assaulted for being gay. He gave me the look that a certain kind of straight dude gives you, a look of both amusement and confusion. I braced myself for follow-up questions or worse, but there was only silence. After a moment or two he smiled and asked, "Do you know what this building used to be?" He pointed to the Carver Neighborhood Market, where our event was being held.


"A liquor store."


"Yeah. But I like this better. Everything is changing so much around here."

"So you grew up around here?" I asked.

"No. My grandmother lived up here. I used to come during the summer."

Time passed and we continued to exchange pleasantries. I invited him to stay for the play.

"No, I can't. I'm waiting for my daughter to get off work."

He told me she worked at the coffee shop attached to the Carver Neighborhood Market.

"And I have to go back down to the hospital," he continued.

"Is everything OK?" I asked.

"Well, they removing the breathing tubes from my wife today," he said, his eyes dancing, careful not to meet mine, "and I have to tell my daughter."

Then he was the one who seemed to brace himself for follow-up questions. I offered none.

More silence passed between us. Only the sound of the cars driving by broke it.

"I'm sorry. I…" I said awkwardly, "will keep your family in my prayers."

Suddenly the beeping sound and my other complaints seemed less significant. He thanked me for my words and walked toward the coffee shop to get his daughter. I watched him head off before I went back inside.