‘This One Girl’s Story’ musical opens in conjunction with new N.C. A&T LGBTA Center
“How can you run, with so much going on around you? How can you fight, with so much going on around you? How can you run? You can leave yourself behind; stop lashing out, take a breath, and put yourself into the world.”
So goes the ending song of the musical that students in the North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University theatre department will be performing next weekend at the Paul Robeson Theatre. “This One Girl’s Story,” written by Bil Wright with music and lyrics by Dionne McClain-Freeney, is a musical inspired by the brutal 2003 murder and hate crime of Sakia Gunn, a 15-year-old girl, stabbed to death after a night out with her friends.
“They missed their bus, so they were standing at the bus stop waiting for the next bus,” said the production’s director and A&T theatre instructor Donna Bradby about the incident that happened 13 years ago. “In the real-life incident, two African-American men came by in a car and were yelling out the window propositioning them [for sex]. They were grown men…It escalated, he started choking one of the young ladies, and then Sakia went to defend her, and he pulled out a knife and stabbed her in the chest. The other young lady ran off to get somebody, and the man ran. She flagged down a car, and Sakia bled out in the car. There are a lot of issues with it, a lot of protesting outrage— the man turned himself in two or three days later, and he ended up taking a plea bargain, and he got sentenced to 20 years.”
Bradby said that since Gunn was an African-American girl and a lesbian, her murder was not publicized as much as other hate crimes.
“There was outrage within the community in comparison to these types of hate crimes with males, in particular white males and females,” Bradby explained. She said there were comparisons to the media coverage of Matthew Shepard, the white gay man beaten to death in 1998, and Sakia Gunn’s murder. Shepard’s was much more publicized.
“There is this history of us being victimized,” Bradby said, regarding African-American women. “The media picks and chooses who they are going to put out front because this person is familiar; this person looks like most of the people in the world. ‘It is amazing that this white person was killed, but it makes sense for a black person to be killed because they are black and are probably doing something wrong.’ It is all of these historical things that are piled upon the mistreatment we have received historically, and even, sometimes, we don’t stand up as we should. We don’t protest; we are not vocal like we should because we have bought into this white norm of who we are. Ownership has to be on us to stand up and say, ‘no we are valued.’”
Bradby said the show starts with a big protest, and it ends with a vigil honoring victims of hate crimes, which in itself is a different kind of protest. “It is a rough subject matter, but race plays a part in it historically. It still does.”
Bradby said she had known about the play for about six years through A&T alumna Zonya Love.
“But with our program, we have to run the gambit of genres, cause we are nationally accredited,” Bradby explained. “The kids have to do a classical piece, a comedy and a social justice piece. We talked with the playwright and composer, but they weren’t ready to release it because it is a newer show.”
“The university has taken a stand about the LGBTQ community, so we were looking for a piece because we always want to work in concert with the university,” Bradby added.
On Feb. 20, N.C. A&T’s Office of Student Development and the Multicultural Student Center is holding the grand opening for the university’s first LGBTA Resource Center. The reception is from 1 to 5 p.m. Following the reception, is the opening night of “This One Girl’s Story.” The play is showing for a limited time and will run through the weekend.
“It was announced to us that they were also opening the LGBTQ center, and fortunately, it is all working together because the center opens on the 20th the show opens on the 20th,” said Gregory Horton, interim chair and director of the Visual and Performing Arts Theatre Program. “So, it was this magnificent thing that has come about that we started talking about in April last year. When Miss Donna brought the show to me, as the chair of the department, I was like, Donna we need to do this show.”
Horton connected with Gerald Spates, A&T’s director of the Multicultural Student Center. Spates said he has long been advocating for A&T to have their own LGBTA center.
“Now the next thing to do is get the students involved, who are either advocates for this center or both centers and those students who are gay and lesbian around the campus because we now have more students that are [LGBTQIA+],” Horton said. “I can remember when I came in 2005, this would not have been a subject that we could have talked about.”
Horton said he is an out gay man who works in the university’s theatre department, so he has felt comfortable being out on campus.
“Most of the time though, on an HBCU in general, you don’t get that kind of base,” Horton said. “This HBCU has decided to do the right thing.”
“From an educational perspective, we have been doing a lot of programming on campus, and the students themselves in the last couple years have been hitting home runs, but also to raise the students’ voice,” Spates said. “What I have been trying to do is help raise their level of consciousness among my colleagues with regards to training and understanding and providing resources in conjunction with other areas. So this opportunity was perfect timing, just to have that collaboration.”
Spates said he came to A&T in 2011 and he had been pushing for the university to create a safe space for its LGBTQ+ students.
“If you are expecting one office to be the voice for the umbrella of diversity and inclusion, we are never going to be correct,” Spates said. “It has to be an institutional commitment. And it has to be collaborative, intentional and meaningful— so it was certainly a perfect fit my compadre, Mr. Horton presented it to me on the front end, and I was like ‘absolutely!’ Then, everything else came into fruition.”
Spates said one of his priorities as the director of the Multicultural Center is to bring normalcy to the discussion of LGBTQIA+ sexuality and the issues the community faces.
“It is a normal part of life and should be part of our everyday thinking even when programming is done,” Spates said.
Spates said he had not heard of Sakia Gunn before this play.
“I knew nothing, I had even hosted Matthew Shepard’s mom at UNC Charlotte, but I had no clue of this,” Spates said.
“I never heard of her either,” Bradby added.
“And It is not unusual,” Spates continued. “Sometimes, with how disenfranchised we can be at times this country can be— in regard to giving the same level of attention to all issues: inequality, discrimination, injustices— it all should be consistent across the board. It doesn’t matter what community you are from, everyone deserves it”
Spates said he identifies as a heterosexual man, and he believes it is important to discuss the nuanced conversation on race, gender and sexual identity presented in this play.
“It’s crucial that we bring attention and respect for the level of normalcy. The new LGBTA center is going to help harness and push out a lot more information from an intentional standpoint. And it helps the fact that because we have an active student organization, such as Prism, to help.”
Prism is the LGBTQ+ student organization that was introduced under a different name (PROUD, People Recognizing Our Underlying Differences) in 2012. Two years ago, the group changed the name to Prism.
“It has never ever been so strong than especially the last couple of years, I have to give credit to a lot of student leaders like Asia,” Spates said.
“Prism is like the home base of the LGBT community,” said Asia Hill, president of Prism. “What we do is serve the community, it is not just serving the people who pay dues.”
Prism is not exclusive to A&T’s campus, and Hill makes it clear that the group was put into place to help the entire Greensboro and A&T LGBTQIA+ community.
“All of our events are open to the public, but it is enforced that we are a safe space. So, you can get kicked out—just don’t be outrageous, or misgender anybody or not show respect for people’s space and identity.”
“Because of the help of the students in the community and especially the Prism student organization, and their voice, the voices are being heard and I love it, “ Spates added.
The characters of “This One Girl’s Story” are Cee Cee (played by Kirsten Grinage), Cee Cee’s girlfriend Dessa (Vanaya Henderson) and the role inspired by Sakia Gunn, Patrice (Jordan Hankerson).
“I always want people to understand that it is based on [Gunn’s] death, but the show is a flashback of that day, and what you see are two cousins having a great time. You see all the dynamics of relationships—It is just regular life, and then this incident happens,” Bradby said.
Henderson is a junior theatre student at A&T and she describes her character, Dessa, as a “lipstick lesbian.” Dessa dates Cee Cee and is one of the ones who witness Patrice’s murder.
“I love to say this, musicals are great for people who are uncomfortable because there is music that kind of help guides you,” Henderson said. “Some of the best musicals have very controversial topics like Hamilton with immigration—‘This One Girl’s Story’ isn’t different. We are just talking and opening the door for more conversations to be had. Preparing for this role was acknowledging people that are around you in your community, acknowledging where you are in your space and knowing where you stand on issues. Then applying it to the work so that other people can learn from it.”
Grinage is a junior theatre student and she describes Cee Cee as an AG (aggressive girl), lesbian.“It is funny when you are working on a play,” Bradby said, “you have to decide whose play is it. It is not Patrice’s play, it is Cee Cee’s play. It is really about Cee Cee’s struggle—It is really about what she goes through to honor her promise. Promise is a theme because Cee Cee tells Patrice that she promises to have her back and take care of her when they go to the club—she was going to take care of her cousin. Then she feels like she didn’t keep her promise because at the end of the night, Patrice is murdered. So, it is really Cee Cee’s powerful story of friendship and justice and making peace with what happened.”
“How I prepared for the role is, just talking about what is going on in the script, figuring out who our character is and how we can move forward to portraying the best person we literally can portray,” Grinage said. “At the same time, this is a real person’s life…Talking to Prism, doing the research that we need to have done, and just also getting into the mindset of not being a caricature.”
Grinage said she liked the uncomfortable nature of this play because “each year we have always pushed the envelope, and I like that.”
“This is the reason why I did this, to push the envelope to start conversations,” Grinage said. “The whole reason for uncomfortability is change, to evoke change and grow.”
Hankerson is a sophomore theatre student who plays Patrice, the character inspired by Sakia Gunn, who is described as AG/butch.
“This is not my first acting gig, but I will say, being at A&T this is my first lead, so with this being a show that it can be a hard pill to swallow for some people,” Hankerson said. “It is so beautiful—their relationships. If you can’t connect to the sexuality part of it, you can connect to the family aspect.”
In terms of preparing for the role, “miss Donna is making me come in and wear hoodies, sweats and Timbs just to get used to not being so girly, I have to really physicalize it,” Hankerson said.
Hankerson remarked that the intense character research and seeing parallels in the script from the videos was hard to adapt to.
“Some of us were in the room watching it and tearing up watching it because when you take the LGBTQ aspect out of it— when you take the relationships when you take all of that out— it is a human being who was just going about their day, who was killed because someone did not agree with who they were as a person,” Hankerson said. “Hate crimes, in general, is just something that you can’t believe someone would do.”
Hankerson said as an actress not apart of the LGBT community, she tries to be as respectful as possible and to research the roles extensively.
“You don’t want to be ignorant—you want to educate yourself and be smart actors,” she said. “When doing research, you want to be sure that you are being respectful for the community as well and not just, ‘Oh I got this role I have to act this way.’”
“Which is why we took a lot of time to do some thorough research for this,” Bradby added. “We are very research-driven, our program. We do four shows a year, and it is research-intense for our students— for the core team, the designers— so we have been doing a lot of research around this subject matter.”
Bradby said that her actors worked with Prism to help connect them with people from the LGBTQ community so that they could authentically learn who they were portraying.
“So when you are watching this, it is not that you are watching people acting like—they are becoming, embodying,” Horton added. “A biologist might work on the same molecule for two years, and we only get 30 days to put it up. Of course, Donna started researching a year ago, but getting everybody else involved—the cast, production team, the centers and everything— that takes even more steps and time.”
Bradby said she couldn’t wait until the post-production discussion that would immediately follow the show, because she believes it to be the perfect time to learn and discuss this musical’s heavy subject matter.
“A lot of people are forgetting or not paying attention to the number of people part of the LGBTQIA community, especially among the trans community—who are being murdered every year,” Bradby said. “This play is really helping in a new way to open the dialogue so that we can take it to a platform to have these discussions openly and safely.”
She said she is also excited about the new dialogue this play will create both within the queer community and the heterosexual community.
“My hope is for people who would never think to come to a show, will challenge themselves, and come and stay for the talk-back,” Bradby said. “And really be authentic and say how you feel so that there can be a vibrant conversation about it. We can agree to disagree, but hopefully, you will learn something from it. And that you will see that love is love and human is human.”
“We are learning a lot; our minds have really shifted gears,” Henderson said. “A lot of the things we were ignorant about, we are learning so much. That is why I feel like a lot of students need to come out and see this show because we are talking about minorities, and it is a layered minority show on top of it. We are talking about black gay people; we are talking about violence, protest and what does it mean [to protest] and what should we be protesting. There is so much to pack and unfold, it is going to be uncomfortable for a lot of people, but I am ready for it. The best thing that you can do is when you tell people if you can’t handle the heat, get out of the kitchen. Well, we are about to turn up the heat. Come on in; we want everyone in the kitchen.”
“With this show, I really hope we don’t shut down the conversation but really ignite a conversation of unity,” Henderson added. “At the end of the day, we are all we got. If our community on campus could come together just from one story, from ‘This One Girl’s Story,’ and like make a difference, it is going to shift the campus.”
Katie Murawski is the editor-in-chief of YES! Weekly. Her alter egos include The Grimberlyn Reaper, skater/public relations board chair for Greensboro Roller Derby, and Roy Fahrenheit, drag entertainer and self-proclaimed King of Glamp.