BLACK MONOLOGUES: Sharing Stories and Inspiring a Movement
Last fall, a group of UVA students got firsthand experience using the power of live theatre to make people see the world in new and different ways.
MONOLOGUES was a student-driven initiative based out of the Drama Department
that brought together 30 students from throughout the University to explore
issues related to what it feels like to be a Black student at UVA. The
production, inspired by a similar effort at the University of Maryland, was
first suggested to longtime director and Drama Department professor Theresa M. Davis by Chukwudumebi Joy Omenyi in 2013 (College ‘15).
"It stayed in our minds and thank goodness, I was approached again last summer by students Michah Watson (College ‘18) and Kelsey Watkins (College ‘16)." After contacting the organizers of the original production at the University of Maryland, the UVA students learned that the project was not just envisioned as a production, but a movement that could spread across the country, not unlike the socially conscious theatrical sensation The Vagina Monologues. Their only request was that all of the UVA pieces be original works.
Watson and Audrey Ogendi (College ‘15) approached Davis about the possibility of devising and staging a production of THE BLACK MONOLOGUES in the spring of 2015. Immediately upon returning in the fall, they identified interested students and hosted a series of workshops before the formal start of the rehearsal process. Both Davis and the Drama Department’s resident playwright Doug Grissom, offered writing and performance workshops for the group. The writing began in earnest at the start of the fall semester.
Through the writing and editing process, Watson and her fellow writers faced important, often surprising questions that challenged the way they thought about their community and themselves. “We realized we were writing about a community, but we never stopped asking ourselves whether we were actually a community at all. By the end of our second and third drafts, we realized that we needed to question and even criticize our community in order for it to grow. It was not enough to focus on how things are. We wanted to challenge ourselves to look at how they could be.”
Watson and her colleagues were so deep in the creative process that they had little awareness of what kind of interest the show might draw. “When you work on something for so long,” she said, “you are just so deep in your own creative bubble that you never think it is going to be recognized. You hope for some sort of impact, but you really have no idea.”
That question was answered quickly on the weekend of the show’s two scheduled performances. “One evening we turned away well over 100 people,” Davis said. “There was a young woman in tears who was not able to get in, and some who had traveled from as far away as Maryland and D.C.”
Given the overwhelming response, the students banded together to successfully petition the Drama Department for a second weekend of performances. “We were so thankful that Drama Department Chair Colleen Kelly granted this request,” Davis said. The next weekend was just as packed, with as many as 60 more turned away at the door.
Those lucky enough to sit in those audiences were part of a rare and wonderful theatrical moment. “It was a communal experience on so many levels,” Davis said. “The audiences were able to have a truly in-depth cultural experience where they were able to engage in call and response in a way that made them not just spectators, but participants in the piece.”
The brutally honest nature of some of the pieces, Watson said, meant that participation was not always easy, or comfortable. Some were created in response to high profile racially charged incidents, both on Grounds and throughout the country. These included reactions to the Martese Johnson incident on the UVA Corner as well as to widely reported unrest at Yale and the University of Missouri. “We were inspired by the hashtag “#notjustuva” that was going around Twitter,” Watson said “For us, it was about finding the universal in the particular.”
“The honesty of these pieces took my breath away,” Davis said. “These students were sharing their truths in a way that was so courageous and moving. There were times when it was very uncomfortable for the performers, for the writers, and for the audience members, but there were also moments where I could look into the audience and see agreement and understanding, and that people were seeing themselves and their own situations reflected.”
Watson said she continues to hear from students in the Black community and beyond about the experience. “I had people tell me that they had never felt so at home, and that it was so great to hear their voice expressed in a way they feel doesn’t often happen here. I also heard from other minority students who expressed an interest in doing this for their own communities here. I love the idea of expanding that narrative, and believe so fully in the power of theatre as a political and as a social tool.”
The momentum from the production has continued in the form of multiple invitations from both UVA and community groups to perform the pieces. “My dream would be to see THE BLACK MONOGUES performed each year. I truly believe that art is the soul of culture, and I think we in today’s society sometimes lose sight of that. Many of us think of art as a luxury as opposed an integral part of our life experience. I believe that what these students accomplished and what we did in the Drama Department in supporting this event opened the door for others to tell their own stories.”