For years, I have been exposed to numerous hidden gems in Fresno. A few weeks ago was the latest iteration. A Fresno State alumnus, Joshua Slack, performed his one-man show titled “Code Switch.” The performance was in conjunction with and sponsored by the Pan Valley Institute of the American Friends Service Committee (PVI). Slack is an ArteVism Fellow for the PVI. His one-man show was a collage of personal experiences that walked the audience down the path of being a young Black male growing up in America through his eyes.
Slack was born in Maryland to a military family. His family eventually settled in the Central Valley town of Lemoore. He attended middle and high school in Lemoore before attending and graduating from Fresno State, where he studied theater arts and political science. At Fresno State, he was active in events on campus and in the Fresno community. He served as president of the campus Black Student Union and was a co-organizer of the successful Black Lives Matter rally in Fresno in the summer of 2020.
His one-man show, which was held in person and via YouTube, reflected his life experiences from Maryland to Fresno. The twists and turns explored throughout the presentation, firmly grounded in his 2000s upbringing, were humorous, thought-provoking, infuriating and, at times, humbling.
The show begins with the main character entering the stage wearing a dark blue hoodie and black facemask. The accompanying song, a little-known tune from 1974 called “Every Nigger Is a Star” by Boris Gardiner, is playing in the background. As the song plays, the character changes clothing outfits, and facial expressions show discomfort with the available options. Eventually, he is most comfortable sitting barefoot on the edge of the stage. Next, a voice from above begins to critique the position of the character and offer suggestions for improvement, especially encouraging the character to “not be his Black self.”
Slack does an outstanding job expressing his real-life experiences of “the talk,” being guilty of being Black and how to successfully use “code switching.” All the while, his shifting characterizations and wardrobe changes exemplified his method of “code switching.” His real-life examples and lessons learned via his mother and other life circumstances were brilliantly displayed.
Most touching was Slack’s description of Black fatherhood. Becoming a first-time father and then confronting the possibility of losing that child and not being able to share real emotion because of the threats that could arise was moving. It summarized what “code switching” is all about. The personal confrontation of not being able to be or express yourself because of the fear of reprisal.
His story is not unique. Unfortunately, most Black people are constantly forced to traverse these same universal burdens daily. From wearing a hoodie to encounters with police to characteristic descriptions ascribed to Black folks, African Americans are expected to be and act a certain way.
During an interview with Slack, we laughed about the connectivity between his description of “code switching” and the movie Sorry to Bother You. In that movie, the main character navigates his need to “code switch” to be successful in telemarketing.
Slack’s one-man show, “Code Switch,” is available on YouTube.
(Author’s note: “The ArteVism Fellowship Program provides the Valley’s youth of color with opportunities to build their own unique sense of place and belonging. The goal of the program is to help the fellows create provocative programming that engages the community and paves the way for a more democratic and equitable region.”—PVI Program Director Myrna Martinez Nateras)