In 9 Ounces, Anastacia Renee Tolbert transforms monologues into conversations

Luna, Alice, and Saraphina fill the stage with both humor and anguish. Three friends living in the same building, they work on their downward dog together and help each other through life’s daily struggles. The performance in 9 Ounces presented the separate monologues of these three black women — each one an act and each role performed by Anastacia Renee Tolbert, the Hugo House's current poet-in-residence. In part, the characters serve to represent the span of life and its various stages through their age differences: Luna is a kid, Alice an adult, and Saraphina a 91-year-old widow. Their unusual friendship also demonstrates Tolbert’s belief that generation gaps and age expectations shouldn’t dictate what we do or who we see. Tolbert donned each persona naturally and switched between them with ease, giving them distinct outfits, different voices, and unique mannerisms. Each character has the therapist-appointed task of talking to their reflection in the mirror (the audience). The result is a self-aware and brutally honest string of ideas and thoughts, sometimes expressing self-consciousness, sometimes criticizing society, and sometimes just trying to be okay.

Common threads bound these women together and linked the show’s acts, making the narrative more cohesive. They share a physical location — living in the same co-op — but more importantly they share an overwhelming and inescapable fear, manifested in their repetitions of “it could happen to me.” Luna, Alice, and Saraphina voiced their fears with infectious conviction, and this unnerving thought — “it could happen to me” — rippled through the audience, amplified by the small, personal setting of the performance.

The monologues included hilarious moments, meditative moments, and solemn moments. But underlying every moment of these black women’s lives is a visceral feeling of being unsafe, whether in a park or in a knitting group or while cooking fried chicken. Saraphina laments, “I am 91 and don’t feel safe still in this world”; Alice repeats her mantra to “keep it moving” when every day “people who look like you are dying”; young Luna admits, “I feel safe inside my co-op… most times. Sometimes. Not this week.” Part of what made the show so forceful was the freedom Tolbert had in terms of performing. In a small room behind the Twilight Gallery in West Seattle, she lit cigarettes and removed clothing, adding layers and layers of depth to her characters. She screamed at the top of her lungs, she cursed, she cried. Tolbert did not hold back, and that’s what made her one-woman show so special. The all-out mentality fueling the characters’ monologues made every joke funnier and every social criticism sting more. Behind hilarious storytelling of daily happenings and other humorous rants were the points that making human connections today is increasingly difficult, that sanity can easily slip out of our grasp, but above all that each day is a struggle as a woman of color. Tolbert’s performance filled the small space with a raw intensity I’ve witnessed few times before. Her show was poignant, tear-jerking, and critical, but it was more than mere adjectives.

The follow-up Q&A was just as important as the performance. I can tell you what was there: a few people; the show’s colorful set; and Tolbert’s art installation with poems tacked on the walls and jars of hair with arrows and notes (“Black hair (natural) — great for appropriation”). But what wasn’t there (until it was finally extracted from the audience, like pulling teeth): a conversation. A conversation about race, the main theme of this over-two-hours show. Those present — myself included — skirted around the most important subject and the glaring theme of feeling unsafe, until at last Tolbert’s friend and the night’s MC voiced her chagrined comment that rightfully called us all out and started the exchange of unrestrained comments and insights. The entire experience highlighted the presence of violence and the absence of conversations, the visible and invisible issues.