By Mandy Moe Pwint Tu
Søren Kierkegaard, a Danish philosopher, believed that “in the telling of our life stories, we become responsible for our lives.” At Sewanee, there is no greater event that encourages the structuring and the telling of our life stories as Sewanee Monologues. This event, which occurs annually in February, is hosted by the Bairnwick’s Women’s Center (affectionately known as the Wick), and is a staple in the Sewanee calendar.
“It’s one of the few times you get to hear your peers be vulnerable, especially when it’s not people that you know,” said Hayden Dunbar (C’21). “It’s opened my eyes to the things that people that I assume have it all together are going through and I think that’s one of the most powerful things to me.”
During Sewanee Monologues, students submit their stories to the Wick’s email address, and the stories—the monologues—are reviewed by the Wick residents. They then suggest edits, but ultimately everyone who submits a monologue and undergoes the editing and rehearsal process delivers their piece onstage at Guerry Auditorium.
Monologues can be submitted anonymously, in which case they will be read by a resident of the Women’s Center. Even if they are not submitted anonymously, students can opt to have someone else read their story.
In her first year of participating in Monologues, Dunbar submitted her story anonymously. She recalls the process being “fun and crazy,” because she had a chance to “do something but to have no strings attached, so there was no pressure on my part.”
For the most part, however, students appreciate the opportunity to write their stories and then deliver them onstage at the event. The 2019 Monologues saw 29 students tell 29 different stories about their experiences, whether they occurred at Sewanee or elsewhere.
The 2020 Monologues are spearheaded by the Wick’s co-directors, Quinn Needham (C’20) and Adriana Quaidoo-Jones (C’20). Needham lived in Wick for a semester the previous academic year, but it is the first year for Quaidoo-Jones.
“We’ve both been engaged with Monologues in the past, but this is our first time putting it on,” said Needham. “There definitely is a lot of pressure to make it as good as previous years, but previous co-directors have left a pretty good blueprint of what needs to be done.”
According to Needham, they have had conversations about the event since November; Guerry Auditorium, too, has been booked since October. This past Friday, the Wick, in collaboration with the Writing House, held a monologues submissions workshop, where interested individuals were encouraged to come to the Writing House to ask any questions they had about participating in Monologues, and to brainstorm about ideas that they may have.
“It’s something that we’re definitely looking forward to,” said Needham. “[But] it’s going to be a bit of a baptism by fire for both of us.”
For many first-year students who decide to participate in Monologues, it is also a bit of a baptism by fire. Drawing from personal experience, I was uncertain about what exactly I was getting myself into when I submitted my poem, “India”, to the Wick’s email in early 2018. The monologue was deeply personal, about my experience growing up as a child of an alcoholic parent, and I wasn’t quite sure how it would be received.
But since I’m no stranger to standing in front of a microphone and baring my fractured soul for the world to see, I decided to go ahead and do it.
We were asked to wear all black to the event. I think I went fifth that year. I always describe the experience a little like screeching into the void, because when the light hits you, you cannot see anyone in the audience. But the power of Monologues is that you can feel everyone’s presence in the room. You get to command the room. You get to be heard.
Until that point, Sewanee had been a difficult period of adjustment. But finally, I was in my element, and decided that this was something I would strive to do for the next three years of my life.
In 2019, I read “The Story of My Name,” which was a little more Sewanee-specific. While mine have consistently been fairly serious in terms of content, some of my favorite monologues have been less so.
“I really appreciate the moments of levity in the performance,” said Needham. “It’s really affirming to relate to someone I may see myself in. I think I’m the most boring person alive and I know for a fact that they think they’re the most boring person alive but everyone genuinely has something to say.”
She continued: “It’s really a community building experience because people that I’ve never spoken to, and maybe have never had the opportunity to meet—when they’re up there and sharing their experiences, I can almost always find something in a monologue that I’m like, ‘yeah, that’s something that rings true for me too,’ which is really cool.”
That, I believe, in the essence of Monologues. Students from all across campus enter Guerry Auditorium on the day with an unspoken agreement to listen to the stories that are presented by their peers. Stories—in their rawest, most powerful form—fill the space between the stage and the seats. For most of us, it is a time to share our experiences in a space that is as safe as it is brave.
But how can we take the energy, the power, and the vulnerability that hums in that room when Monologues occurs and recreate it in our day-to-day lives, in spaces around campus, so that it is not confined to one night in February?
According to Dunbar, in anticipation of Monologues, people are pondering the question, “What in my life is something that I need to share with the world?”
She added: “I feel like that’s important to keep going back to this idea of self-reflection, being able to look at your past experiences and ask, ‘What from this was significant and what can I do about it?’”
“My biggest thing is that this doesn’t have to be once a year,” said Needham. “It’s a great platform to begin conversations.”
She remembers attending Monologues her first year and being afraid that “nothing else would come from it,” adding, “I would love for people to have these conversations and normalize their experiences and be vulnerable in a day to day context.”
With the new Dialogue Across Difference program operating out of the Office of Civic Engagement, there has certainly been an influx of dialogue events which focus on personal experiences surrounding a particular issue. The Student Government Association (SGA) and the Order of the Gown, in collaboration with the Wellness Center, are conducting a series of “Let’s Talk” dialogue events this academic year, while Dialogue Ambassadors like Emily Cate (C’20) and Yousra Hussain (C’21) are hoping to execute more events surrounding topics such as LGBTQ+ and mental health and interfaith respectively.
These events provide platforms for students, faculty, staff, and community members to come together and share their stories with one another. However, the persons who attend these dialogue events do tend to be a group who are familiar with the process and who are willing to enter a space and be vulnerable.
While this year’s Monologues will be an opportunity to share our stories, it will hopefully be a reminder to intentionally seek out spaces where we can continue to hone this particular skill with others who are looking to do the same.
After all, isn’t Sewanee Monologues first and foremost about cultivating community?