Around Campus

One-man show spotlights Black veterans

In “The Ongoing Fight for Freedom,” actor Sonny Kelly embodies 25 hidden figures from North Carolina history.

Sonny Kelly posing in front of American flag.
Sonny Kelly rehearses for his one-man performance, "Stories of NC Black Veterans." The show aims to elevate Black freedom fighters and veterans, known and unknown. (Photo by Jon Gardiner/UNC-Chapel Hill)

Covering 300 years in 70 minutes, “The Ongoing Fight for Freedom: Stories of NC Black Veterans” tells stories left out of history books. The one-man show, produced by the Carolina K-12 program of Carolina Public Humanities, is the UNC-Chapel Hill Digital and Lifelong Learning’s 2024 Black History Month presentation.

“The Ongoing Fight for Freedom: Stories of NC Black Veterans”

3 p.m. Feb. 25

Friday Center

The show is free, but registration is required.

Actor Sonny Kelly brings to life 25 unsung Black veterans and freedom fighters with ties to North Carolina. On a stage with a video screen backdrop, he pulls props from a trunk and transforms from one historical figure to another by changing an article of clothing.

When he dons a red coat and straightens his shoulders, he becomes Thomas Peters, who escaped slavery to fight for the British Black Pioneers in the Revolutionary War. Placing a kerchief on his head and sitting primly in a chair, he is Lucy Nichols, an enslaved woman who fled from a plantation to become a nurse for the Union Army. When he takes up a Bible, he becomes Rev. Elmer Gibson, an Army chaplain who advised President Harry S. Truman on desegregating the U.S. military.

Origin of the show

The state Department of Natural and Cultural Resources commissioned and funded “The Ongoing Fight for Freedom” as part of the America 250 NC initiative to celebrate the nation’s 250th birthday.

Because they wanted the programming to include practical K-12 educational opportunities, they approached Carolina K-12 Director Christie Norris. She readily agreed, seeing a way to bring attention to “marginalized histories.”

With department researchers, they whittled down a long list of unsung heroes until they had a quick-moving show the length of a middle-schooler’s attention span. Norris’s first choice to play all 25 roles was Kelly. She had met him when he was a Maynard Adams Fellow at Carolina and been impressed by his dissertation project, “The Talk.”

After seeing that one-man show inspired by a conversation Kelly had with his young son about being a Black boy in America, Norris asked Kelly to work with teachers directly on tough topics in retreats and workshops for Carolina K-12.

Telling their stories

Kelly, a veteran U.S. Air Force officer, was also her first choice for “The Ongoing Fight for Freedom.” Kelly said he felt honored to tell the stories of so many Black heroes and heroines, especially Sgt. Henry Johnson, a World War I soldier awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor 85 years after his death. He belonged to the Harlem Hellfighters, an all-Black regiment that fought and died more than any other American unit of its size.

Just as the Hellfighters showed that Black soldiers could do more than cook, clean and carry, Kelly hopes “The Ongoing Fight for Freedom” will be similarly enlightening. He wants the audience to come away with a deeper sense of respect, a connection to their stories and a “call to duty to carry on this fight.”

This free presentation open to the community is just one example of how Digital and Lifelong Learning, Carolina’s central resource for support for online and flexible learning, enables campus units to share their research and programs with the larger world.

After this presentation, Carolina K-12 hopes to get requests from schools to host Kelly’s “performative lecture” in person. They have created lesson plans for teachers about the people mentioned in the show and discussed recording his portrayal of individuals as snippets to supplement lesson plans.