Mary Weems begins her journey through black history with a Negro spiritual, sung low and mournful as she appears before a crowd in Gorgas Library at the University of Alabama.
“Sometimes I feel like a motherless child,” she sang. Later in her monologue, she bursts into “Give Up the Funk” by George Clinton of Parliament, bringing out a more joyful, modern piece of African-American culture.
Weems performed “Black Notes,” a one-woman performance piece from her new book Blackeyed: Monologues and Plays as part of her visit to UA on Feb. 12, confronting topics of race, gender, sexuality and domestic violence, channeling many personas and guiding the audience through a litany of hardships.
She brings baggage to the stage, literally. A suitcase marked with stickers from foreign lands holds artifacts that connect each chapter of the story – a rope, a shoe, a pair of men’s underwear.
“Dr. Weems’s work is raw, edgy, honest and beautifully articulated,” said Robin Boylorn, an assistant professor in the Department of Communication Studies at UA. “As a poet and playwright she has a way with words that makes them literally sing. You can’t help but be mesmerized and invested in what she says, how she says it, and the tones and rhythms in which the words come at you.”
When Boylorn heard that Weems would be touring to promote her new book, she thought it would be a great opportunity for UA students to experience performance art.
In “Black Notes,” Weems moves from the persona of a slave who jumps ship to a man stopped by a traffic cop. She becomes a lesbian who has lost her lover, and the prisoner of an alcoholic abuser, all revolving back to the subject of race.
When she concludes her performance, she asks for reactions.
Taireez Niswander, an accounting assistant at UA, is one audience member who speaks up, marveling at how much her thoughts on race changed since she moved from Canada to Alabama.
“Coming to America, it’s like a slap in the face,” Niswander said. “I couldn’t believe how differently people were treated.”
Niswander is white, but said the bold, emotional look at the black experience evoked a strong sense of duty.
“This is supposed to be the land of the free and the home of the brave,” Niswander said. “So what happened to free? What happened to brave?”
In fact, most of the audience members who spoke after Weems’ finished were white. Boylorn said those interactions can be important in addition to the connections made with black audiences.
“I believe that it is important to both confront and educate white audiences and to connect and share with black audiences,” Boylorn said. “I don’t prioritize one over the other, but rather seek balance between the two. The goal, for me, is to create a space conducive to honesty, vulnerability and open dialogue about topics that are oftentimes taboo.”
After the event and some meet-and-greets with the audience, Weems said she was emotionally exhausted.
“Most people don’t realize that!” Weems said. “It is exhausting, to go through all that in front of everyone. It’s a lot.”
Weems remembered the first poem she ever wrote, after she saw a neighbor get hit by a car crossing the street. She was the 13 years old at the time, and wrote from the perspective of death, trying to empathize with him to understand what she had seen.
For 20 years she kept every poem she wrote in a puzzle box with a picture of an Amazon queen, not showing one word to anyone but her family. When she finally showed her poetry to a teacher, the teacher told her “You have talent. What are you going to do with it?”
She decided to use her talent to tackle the pain she saw in her society.
“Sometimes if you try to tackle everything, it’s not just ineffective. It’s spirit-killing,” Weems said. “Try to pick one thing and focus your energy on it. For me, it’s being black.”
One of Weems’ most notable plays is “MEAT,” which deals with serial killer Anthony Sowell, who killed 11 women in the Cleveland neighborhood where Weems’ mother still resides. Weems said the police excused complaints of the smell around Sowell’s house by citing a nearby black-owned sausage shop.
“If that was a white neighborhood,” Weems said. “They wouldn’t have dared say it was the smell of sausage. If you’ve ever smelled a dead body, you know it doesn’t smell like sausage.”
Boylorn said that art is not only an important way of analyzing issues of race and identity – it may be a necessary method of exploration.
“… art (in its many iterations) can help make controversial and complicated aspects of our identities and lived experiences accessible to a larger audience,” Boylorn said. “And then, when we lay it all bare, we can talk about what we see, feel, and think, and learn from it.”
Weems’ book, Blackeyed: Monologues and Plays is available now via Amazon, and her previous books are available in limited supply through distributors like Barnes and Noble.

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