On stage at Amherst College this weekend, “The Lower Frequencies,” a one-man show written and performed by Bryce Monroe, who graduated last year. The title comes from the last lines of Invisible Man, Ralph Ellison’s landmark 1952 novel that explored race and identity in the 20th Century. Monroe is trying to do likewise for the 21st century.
We caught up with him during a dress rehearsal this week, at Amherst’s Power House building, a cavernous renovated utility space.
With a rapidly changing soundtrack of jazz, pop, soul and gospels, Monroe is at one point, standing on a table in the center of the stage. At another, running through the theater, using its balconies, laying on the floor. He has at least six characters, each with a change of clothing and voice. The monologue and physical action make up a highly entertaining and disturbing hour about his black experience living in America. Ellison’s Invisible Man factors throughout, in lines and in spirit.
“This isn’t every black experience,” Monroe says. “This is a particular experience comprising of inspiration from current events, a novel that means a lot to me and my own experience.”
Many scenes are bitingly funny. Others are very hard to watch. Monroe simulates being chased, kicked, left nearly unconscious or worse. The script is peppered with references to Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, pleas for help and declarations of “I can’t breath.”
In one scene, the “Battle Royal,” Monroe is again the Invisible Man, a character who appears to be a sort of super hero in constant struggle to be seen for his knowledge, strength and humanity. Dressed this time as a business man (as opposed to a minister, barber shop owner, TV reporter, slave), he is preparing for a fight. In a suit and red power tie, he takes out of his briefcase a roll of white tape and wraps his fists.
The muddy sound of audio taken off a cell phone booms out of enormous speakers; Monroe speaks along with the dialogue. The sound was originally recorded in 2014 in St. Paul, Minnesota, when a black man sitting in a public area at a mall, about to pick up his kids at day care, is told to leave. When he doesn’t, someone calls the police, and the man ends up being tased and arrested. The scene ends in his unattended pleas for help.
Ellison’s own scene of the “Battle Royal” is in the first chapter of his book. It sets in motion for his unnamed narrator the transformation from young man with hope for the future, to a man who tastes more and more of a bitter struggle in a society that eventually sends him into hiding.
Monroe, who grew up in Texas and now lives in D.C., says he thinks he was a high school freshman when he first read Invisible Man. It never left him. While he wrote “The Lower Frequencies” as an Amherst College senior project, he is compelled to take it further. A voice in his head may be the driving reason. He says even as a church going, college educated man, blessed with a loving family who raised him right, that’s not what he thinks white people see.
“People who I meet on the street don’t know me. And if I’m walking past a white woman…being a kind person…I always have a feeling in the back of my head that they think I’m going to hurt them physically, that I’m going to take something from them…” Monroe says.
It’s a terrible thing, he adds “to go through every day as a creature, as a monster, as a phantom, as a ghoul.”
He is so aware of that voice, and he says he does whatever he can not to listen to it. And he knows he’s not the only black person in America hearing it.
Bryce Monroe’s show is at Amherst College through Saturday.
Correction: The original headline on this story included an incorrect first name for the performer.