“I love black women.”
Percy, a young white man, floats the phrase to Zyesha, a young black woman––meant to flatter her––as a pickup line at a party. Zyesha recoils.
This interaction may seem improbable, appalling, and out of place for a play set in the 21st century. However, “The Linguistic Features of AAVE” urges, disturbingly, that an interaction like this is not uncommon.
NOMADS (New and Original Material Authored and Directed by Students) will be presenting “The Linguistic Features of AAVE” in Barnard’s Glicker-Milstein Theatre from Thursday, Nov. 7 through Saturday, Nov. 9. “Linguistic Features” is an original play by Kay Kemp, CC ’22; directed by Madison Hatchett, BC ’22, and produced by Alli Salwen, BC ’21. It stars Monique Rangell-Onwuegbuzia, CC ’22; Eva Tesfaye, CC ’20; Mia Flowers, BC ’23; Alethea Harnish, CC ’23; Joseph Meyer, CC ’23; Jackson Davis, CC ’22; and Callum Kiser, CC ’21.
"People should come so [that] they can understand a different point of view and see the ways in which people operate on this campus, or on any campus,” director Hatchett said. “Some of the dialogue you’ll hear, and you’re like, ‘Wow, that’s crazy that someone would say that.’ But, no, people say that all the time, and yeah, it is crazy, but people say that: People say, ‘You’re pretty for a black girl,’ ‘You’re pretty for this,’ ‘You’re pretty for that’—you know, that’s not uncommon.”
“Linguistic Features” tells the story of Zyesha, played by Monique Rangell-Onwuegbuzia, a young black woman coming to terms with her personal trauma through a tapestry of past familial moments, the night trauma repeatedly enacted, and dreamlike moments in between.
Her story is told through a variety of stylistic forms, ranging from the naturalistic to the surreal. The central motif is the repetition of an eerie party scene, materializing slightly differently with each rendering.
"It’s kind of like watching somebody going through mental illness, or like what would be going on in their head, or maybe somebody that’s dreaming and can’t wake up, and they’re kind of reliving that,” Hatchett said. “Or like … that show on Netflix [where] she dies and relives the same day. ... It’s kind of like ‘Russian Doll’—where each time something’s a little bit different, and things [are] a little bit more off.”
This repetition—interspersed with the voices of her sisters, Yakini, played by Eva Tesfaye, and Xemena, played by Mia Flowers, who appear as omniscient narrators in surrealist moments of rhythmic and gliding poeticism—becomes the foundation for a sort of cyclical dance.
"For me, the repetition and the changes were partially an homage to Toni Morrison’s concept of a memory drama, or a memory play, where like the whole thing is psychological and ancestral in nature, and so it involves a lot of repetition,” Kemp said. “One of my favorite things that I say to myself is: If I say something twice, it’s an accident. If I say it three times, it’s a motif.”
This is Kemp’s playwriting debut on Columbia’s campus. They were first inspired to write “Linguistic Features” as an assignment for professor Andrew Bragan’s playwriting class. When asked to come up with an idea loosely connected to a myth or fable, Kemp first thought of the story of Medusa—but if instead of snakes, Medusa’s hair was just a black woman’s natural hair. And thus the first seed for “Linguistic Features” was planted.
“Shortly after that, I was in University Writing last year, and had written a paper on ‘Moonlight,’ which like utilized the n-word frequently,” Kemp said. “And I was in an isolated setting with my white teacher, and he said it back to me, and I was like, ‘Oh, this is definitely not a good thing, and I definitely do not enjoy it,’ and that was where the next part of it came from.”
Kemp drew from their own life experiences to build the tapestry that is “Linguistic Features”: pulling from colloquial conversations with their partner, inspirations from academic life, and representing pieces of their own family members within their concocted characters.
"I’m very, very close with a lot of my cousins, and a lot of my extended family, which is why I wanted to write a family play,” Kemp said. “I would say that Zyesha and her sisters are a combination of like my mom and all my aunts and all my cousins just like rolled into one being. And a lot of the things they say are things that I’ve just heard my cousins say to each other, and I’m like ‘That’s kind of funny,’ or ‘That’s kind of cinematic in nature,’ and I just threw it in there, and was like, ‘I’ll make it work somehow.’"
Although the play tells the story of Zyesha’s experience with language, it also tells a much greater story of her experiences as a human being. Thus, “The Linguistic Features of AAVE” as a title seems incomprehensive—if any title is able to be.
"At this point, I’ve gotten so many questions about the title and people being like, ‘Does it really work for the general context of this play?’ And the answer to that question is no,” Kemp said. “But it was important to me at the time—when I was writing out of so much rage, at University Writing, and out of Core Curriculum, and the way that they address voices and which voices deserve to be heard and how those voices should talk when they are heard.”
“It was out of so much rage about that and the way that I couldn’t talk the way that I wanted to talk, that I ended up titling this play—and writing a play about this subject matter that ended up being called ‘Linguistic Features of African American Vernacular English.’ Because it is a vernacular, it is a language, and it is valid to write in, and I wanted to prove that with this play. And so now, no matter how many people tell me to change the title, I simply will not.”
“Linguistic Features” is a conglomerate, with varying theatrical formatting, themes, and carefully contrived characters, offering no tidy conclusions.
“I’m hoping that they leave questioning what their role in things like this is, what their role in appropriation and all the hot button topics that no one wants to talk about, what their role is,” Kemp said. “And I’m not trying to cancel anyone or anything like that—I don’t think that’s valuable. I'm not trying to make you feel incredibly bad about yourself. I’m just trying to make you think.”
“Linguistic Features” is crafted as wholly multidimensional: It’s funny, it’s jarring, it’s lyrical, it’s natural, it’s fluid, it’s dislocating, it’s heartwarming, it’s heartbreaking. Foremost, it’s an important narrative, topical, and poignant.
"I think that this show now is incredibly valuable to the concept of that culture that we’ve been building at Columbia,” Kemp said. “Like not even a full year after Julian von Abele and the whole ‘black people have no culture’ spiel outside of Butler, and not even half a year after that, young man was accosted inside of Milstein for rules that he didn’t know existed, on the pure basis of him being black.”
“Being black at Columbia is still just as hard as it has ever been, and it is not getting any easier, and I think that, especially within the theatre department, where ... in the second semester, there will be exactly two theatre majors that are black, and I will be the second ... it is hard to recognize that theatre is a privilege and having the capacity to make art about yourself is a way to use your voice that not everyone has access to. And I have access to it. And I want to use it.”