"Black Nerd" by Jon Carr: A play that draws on the unexplored Black Experience
By Jon Carr
One of the goals of Dad’s Garage is to produce new work that you would never see anywhere else. I’ve been an improviser at Dad’s Garage for more than a decade, and the marketing director for four years—and what I love about working here is our company’s commitment to producing the work we (We’re just not the traditional theatre going audience) want to see no matter how weird, experimental, never-done-before kind of theatre and comedy that (for better or worse) would not get produced at any other theatre.
This week at Dad’s Garage, we are opening exactly this type of show, and this time I’m the creator! As the writer and creator of “Black Nerd” I wanted to give a new perspective on “The Black Experience”. I rarely see my self on stage and I wanted to change that. Of course, there is no one monolithic “Black Experience,” yet when you look at movies like Straight Outta Compton, musicians like Migos, and TV Shows like Empire, so much of what we present as “Blackness” is centered on gritty, urban experiences. While I appreciate and enjoy these aspects of black culture, that wasn’t my experience.
I was homeschooled by traveling Christian clowns and grew up in Southern California. I was surrounded by strip malls, not housing projects. I did not go to a tough, inner city school like you see in The Wire. Instead, I was homeschooled, and surrounded by other squeaky clean kids of all races. Instead of learning how to rap, I learned how to Swing Dance. I was more interested in Gene Kelly than Ice Cube. I grew up loving Comics, Musicals, and Classic films from the 50’s, which many young black people would look at and say “Wait, what?” I am a nerd. And I am black.
But I still had a “Black Experience” growing up, and that’s what I wanted to present. For me, “The Black Experience” is not singular life path, but a way of engaging and interacting with the world that we Black Americans all live with. Case in Point: Getting Pulled over. Even though I grew up in a very tame, Christian, law-abiding household, my father took an extra day in teaching me to drive in order to show me how to get pulled over. This is something many young black people learn from their parents, no matter how they grew up. Understanding the impact of systemic racism, and how it can harm me as a black person (even if I’m an upstanding, law-abiding citizen) is the truth of the “Black Experience” and is something that can transcend class, region of our country, or any other category.
For me, some of my “Black Experience” involved not feeling black enough for my black friends, but feeling too black for my white friends. Growing up a weird, nerdy kid into that knew all the words to Singin’ In The Rain, other black people looked at me and thought I “acted too white”. On the flip side, when I was around my white friends I felt like there were always these small moments that reminded me, “Who yea you’re black.” When I look at it, this sense of otherness, of not belonging in the dominant culture, is very much the “Black Experience,” but I never imagined it could come from people who look just like me. I wanted to see other young black men like me on television who enjoyed geeky stuff—who wasn’t Steve Urkel. Nobody is that geeky!
A show like “Black Nerd” probably wouldn’t get produced at a big, regional theatre. It’s a risky concept, because beyond Urkel’s “Did I do that?” punchline, this little niche of life the “Black Experience” hasn’t been explored before. Will people get it? Will they relate? This show breaks with so much of the narrative of black culture, but is still true to my island of experience. This is what I love so much about theatre, and specifically creating work for Dad’s Garage. There is space for all sorts of experiences, and examining their place in our society. What better place to do a show called “Black Nerd” than Atlanta. We are the epicenter of black life and culture, and also one of the best places to be a geek (if you haven’t been to the DragonCon Parade, you MUST go). We all have different life experiences, and some of them overlap in unexpected ways. But, in the end, so much of our human experience is shared, and by looking at the life of others we can be more empathetic and understanding of those around us.