When Melanie Carter videotaped a confrontation with a North Versailles, Pa., police officer in March, she was trying to stand up for the young black girls she said she saw the officer shove out of a theater.
Before long, Carter said, she was handcuffed, her head was banged on concrete, and she was later arrested.
Her video – subsequently posted to Facebook – garnered more than 2.7 million views and was shared nearly 70,000 times.
"I thought he was going to kill me," she said. But for those girls, she would do it again in a heartbeat, she said.
"[Black women] owe it to ourselves to stand up."
Incidents like the one in North Versailles, Allegheny County, inspired her to bring what she said "is a shared experience" by black women to the theater stage – to show that their stories matter.
Carter – artistically known as Blak Rapp M.A.D.U.S.A. – stars in the one-woman autobiographical play she wrote as an ode, "a love story" to the black women in her life, in hip-hop, who saved her. (Carter promotes messages of equality and liberation under her stage name, which stands for "Black Liberation and Knowledge," "Rhymes and Political Poetry," "Making a Difference Using Skills and Activism.")
The name of the show was inspired by her mother, foster mother, and grandmother – all named Mary.
Earlier this year, she premiered the show in Pittsburgh, where three shows sold out at Kelly Strayhorn Theater.
The Harrisburg native settled in Philadelphia in June as a self-proclaimed artivist, a blend of artistry and activism. She calls herself "a collage of everything" – black, female, bisexual, Muslim, and formerly incarcerated.
Her identities as artist and activist come center stage in three acts during 75 minutes of satirical drama that follows Carter's journey, including foster care and incarceration in a maximum-security prison for drug possession.
"I wasn't supposed to be put in maximum security for a non-violent offense," she said.
The performance — made up of five monologues, original poetry, rap songs, and dances — tells the story of "struggle" and "self-discovery," she said. She hopes it will support, uplift, and empower black women to speak openly and "to stop being silent about our pain all the time."
"A lot of times, women, we've been victimized so many times" that we're afraid to tell our stories, she said.
Historically, black women's stories "kind of get lost," in the shuffle, she said. The play is a remedy.
Kim El, the show's director, is a Pittsburgh-based actress, poet, director, and playwright who has penned 15 plays of her own.
She said Carter's play, "is like hip-hop theater in full force."
"She wants to be able to tell her story in such a way that it expounds on black feminism and artistic resistance," El said.
"The way [Carter] tells a story with rhyme and hip-hop" is phenomenal, she said.
"It allowed me to feel the respect of someone who has overcome what she has endured to achieve what she has achieved," El said.
El helped "bring it to life," Carter said.
"Because [Carter is] not a playwright, she wanted me to transform her words into a play," El said, so for about five months, the duo collaborated, revising and rewriting.
Onstage, Candace Perdue is Carter's only company, as she dances and mimes, representing the versatility of hip-hop and black women, she said.
The show is for everyone who "ever felt like a lost one, a misfit, a nobody," she said.
For Perdue, the show calls for lots of costumes, songs, and dances with Carter. The show's many costumes and makeup were created by award-winning costume artist Cheryl El Walker.
At the show's core — much like Carter's life — is music, always leading the way.
"For whatever scene of life we're in, hip-hop has a song for it," Perdue said.
Music jams like Salt-N-Pepa's "Push It" and Bell Biv DeVoe's "Poison" are woven throughout deeply vulnerable, joyous, and emotional scenes that depict moments in Carter's life, such as past relationships and her time in prison.
"I want to tell my own story," Carter said. "I just want to be out-front with my story and not be afraid, or apologetic about telling my story."