Viewers might watch an episode of the Englert Theatre’s new series, Nuggets of Wisdom, and think Sharon Udoh and Jonny Stax have been close friends for years. Whether it’s the chemistry they have in their conversation, or how comfortable they seem talking about personal subjects, there’s a sense of familiarity.
The two actually met in November during the 2019 Witching Hour Festival, and were brought back together to discuss (and occasionally sing about) the state of the world, marginalized populations and how to be better citizens.
“Our deep mission work, like the work we do with Mission Creek and Witching Hour, has always tried to focus in on these conversations about race and gender identity, and really highlighting populations that may not always get a platform,” said John Schickedanz, marketing director for the Englert. “And so that’s always been part of our ethos, I guess.”
Having to close their doors during the COVID-19 pandemic inspired Englert staff to develop their online platform, Schickedanz said. The death of George Floyd, along with the widespread protests that followed, spurred them on.
Looking for hosts for a new online conversation series, the Englert decided on musician Udoh — lead singer of Columbus, Ohio band punk/funk band Counterfeit Madison — as well as West Branch, Iowa-based creative coach and social equity strategist Stax, because of their contributions to the theater’s Witching Hour Festival last fall. Udoh performed a tribute to Nina Simone in which she not only played the High Priestess of Soul’s songs, but discussed Simone’s turbulent life and civil rights activism. Stax led a presentation called “Bridging Divides to Mobilize a Creative Force” focused on people’s tendency to silo themselves, and the importance of connecting with those outside of your own experiences and beliefs.
When they were contacted by Jessica Egil, the Englert’s events director, both artists were quick to say yes to the project. Udoh was especially speedy.
“So I just want to let you know that I didn’t even read the email and I was saying yes to whatever you’re saying just … yes. I’m off to another meeting and will read the email later, but yes. Whatever the fuck you’re asking for. I love you and the Englert, period. I just saw your name and shrieked, talk soon,” Udoh told Egil in an email.
Udoh and Stax spoke once on the phone before they recorded Nuggets of Wisdom on June 19, Juneteenth. Englert employees and board members submitted anonymous questions that provided a baseline for their two-hour conversation. The recording has been broken down into episodes, which are released every day for 10 days; as of July 13, five episodes have been published. Schickedanz said on the 10th day they will share the whole conversation, unedited.
“If I were to just tell you we’re gonna publish a conversation about, you know, race relations and police brutality, you would think, ‘Oh that’s really, really serious.’ And it is an extremely serious topic, but Sharon and Jonny’s personalities … take a bit of weight off of the conversation and makes it more accessible for people that may be less comfortable having those conversations,” Schickedanz said. These personalities (Stax identifies as extroverted, and Udoh an introvert) come through in the series’ sing-songy intro and highly quotable unscripted dialogue.
For example, in the second episode, Udoh discusses the awakening of white people to the atrocities committed against people of color for centuries; on the spot, she sings, “Welcome to internalized racism.” Stax describes an animated journey through a person’s body to find the seeds of internalized racism within them. Udoh starts playing her piano and continues to sing, while Stax dances with a puppet and pretends to search for the problem within the puppet.
When Stax was asked if he had any apprehension about having conversations on these important issues in a public way — especially about race, as a white man — he said, “That’s one of the biggest barriers we have to this work, is that we’re afraid to make a mistake. And some of it comes from a really altruistic place of ‘I don’t want to hurt someone.’ And some of it comes from an ego place of ‘I don’t want to be the fool.’… I think I just realized that I could use my willingness to be the fool, that could be where I put my privilege.”
Udoh said she was able to learn more about how white people understand race from Stax.
“As a Black person, I sometimes say I understand whiteness more than white people because I have to watch it, you know. Sometimes whiteness is like a person who’s never looked in a mirror so they don’t know that they have a little curl of the lip when they say something funny, or like a little blink or wink,” Udoh said. “They don’t know some of the habits that they have, but Black people watch whiteness all the time, so we know. [Stax] has spent a lot of time looking in the mirror. And so he knows what whiteness looks like and it’s really refreshing and he showed me a few more things.”
A point Stax made that stuck with Udoh was the idea that white people’s racial identity exists in their brain, where they can disregard it and put it in the back of their mind, whereas Black people’s racialization is in their bodies.
“[White people] can just convince your brain that you just don’t want to think about it, whereas we don’t have that option,” Udoh said.
In addition to racism, Udoh and Stax, both of whom identify as LGBTQ, discuss gender identity and sexual orientation.
“One of the things that was really neat to talk about was really the shame extraction of queerness in our society, which has been a real prevalent experience for me and Sharon,” Stax said.
Being at the intersection of both the black and queer experience made Udoh more open to doing the series, she said. Udoh, who five years ago came out as gay, had a lot of internalized homophobia that she says she is still working to undo. Because of this, she relates to people that need to unlearn racism.
“There are so many people that stuck their neck out for me when they shouldn’t have. They should have dismissed me a lot quicker than they did. So I think it’s really important right now to open up, if I can,” she said.
Udoh described a friend named Joey she met when she was a teenager. Joey, a gay man, came into her life when she was very uncomfortable being around gay people. Now, when she thinks of coming out, she sees her friendship with Joey as the start of that process.
“He didn’t have to have me in his life. I know that I made him uncomfortable. He became my friend; 17 years later I came out,” Udoh said. “And if he wasn’t patient with me, who knows where I would have been. So I know what it’s like to be a little uncomfortable with someone, because maybe 17 years from now, someone might understand how their whiteness affects them in this world.”
Udoh, Stax and Schickedanz all emphasized the importance of conversation as a mechanism for change.
“I just want people to know that conversation is possible, change is possible,” Udoh said. “I’ve never ever changed because someone yelled at me … I’ve been through a journey and I just hope people can learn to be patient with themselves and other people, even if it’s uncomfortable.”