"Stop acting black, Kane. ... You're not black, Kane."
As I enter a rehearsal space at PlayMakers Repertory Company, Kane Smego seems to be battling himself, with this mantra echoing through a series of other voices both historical and personal. With his body, hand motions, rapid-fire monologue, and precise verbal pivots, Smego seamlessly flips back and forth between exploring the experience of being accused of "wiggerism" and delving into nineteenth-century American hypocrisy.
From a young age, Smego has lived a life of blurred lines. In the hip-hop world, he's appeared alongside G Yamazawa and J. Gunn in the breakout local anthem "North Cack," and he's the associate director of Next Level, a U.S. Department of State exchange program that fosters hip-hop diplomacy. In the poetry world, he's been a National Poetry Slam finalist, and he cofounded Chapel Hill youth poetry organization Sacrificial Poets.
Now, in the world of theater, Smego will combine his disciplines into one piece of performance art. Temples of Lung and Air, directed by Joseph Megel in PlayMakers' PRC2 series, is a one-man play about how Smego navigates his unique identity and perspective.
"When we talk about race in America, race is a white issue," Smego says. Unlike the creators of Hamilton and their gentrification of hip-hop culture, he is keenly aware of his responsibilities when it comes to representing hip-hop. His traditional audience is from the poetry and hip-hop community, but with this show, he says he feels a need to speak to white middle-class audiences, too, building a bridge between the two worlds.
Judging from the preview, Temples of Lung and Air attacks a plethora of issues around race, privilege, and identity that are prevalent in our country. Though Smego has put in tremendous work in the Triangle and internationally, in the worlds of art education, poetry, and hip-hop, he still humbly labels himself a "guest" in hip-hop culture and sees part of his job as "speaking to white people and how they are socialized to learn not to see things," such as how white artists take from hip-hop without using their platform to address issues that affect it.
"The notion of privilege is probably the hardest to communicate to people who have it," Megel points out to me at the rehearsal. I smile a bit to hear this said out loud. Though the statement is something many white allies can agree on, not many are having the conversation in a public forum.
Smego might be the perfect catalyst to push difficult conversations about white privilege to the forefront of the theater world, bringing his dual consciousness to the stage. While he has a home in the family of hip-hop and had a black father figure in his life as a child, his show also unapologetically airs out closeted conversations white people have among themselves—the racist and hateful expressions he's heard as part of a multigenerational white family. His skilled wordplay shows the love he got from his white father and grandparents, but also how this love was conflicted by a hateful worldview toward those that did not look or think like them.
Temples of Lung and Air is an example of PlayMakers strategically edging toward diversity in performance and audience, a way to "reach out to audiences that never come to PlayMakers" and expose the usual audience to new experiences, Megel says. While the theatergoing crowd will no doubt be in attendance, there will definitely be new support from the hip-hop community to see one of its top performers coming home and combining everything he's learned as an artist. Each performance will also include a featured poetry group from the community, such as the Bull City Slam Team and Blackspace Poetry. And a panel of poets, artists, and academics, including Dasan Ahanu, will discuss the show and how it applies to our society. This should help bring a necessary dialogue to the discussion of race, all from a dynamic viewpoint that utilizes amazing spoken word and skillful rhyme schemes, speaking on the progressive conversations that we as a community so desperately need.