To a silent room and 16 Duke student actors grouped together on a small stage, theatrical director Elena Lagon coaxed each person to connect with their character, her eyes scanning their faces.
One by one, each person recited the first line of their monologue, their character isolated in their own thoughts:
“This is my third sophomore year.”
“Everyone knows I’m gay.”
“I let him **** me.”
They were each the pointed beginning to a personal, anonymous story. The words have been submitted by Duke students, recounting tales of awkward one-night stands or a family’s demise due to poverty, and transformed into the Me Too Monologues.
The show is in its sixth year, in which the chosen collection of stories that revolve around identity are then retold by Duke actors. Some of the content triggers tears, buried memories and laughter.
But above all, the people behind the production hope the monologues encourage deeper conversation and understanding among students.
Lagon said she saw her first Me Too performance when she was a freshman. Now, as a Duke neuroscience and theater studies junior, she isn’t in the audience anymore. She has brought these personal narratives to life, by connecting real characters to the written words.
“I hope that people realize more than anything that these aren’t voices that have been created,” Lagon said. “These are voices that exist on campus.”
Duke visual media studies sophomore Courtney Fehsenfeld, Me Too’s graphic designer, sat in the front row Thursday night, watching as the actors prepared for showtime. She said she discovered her first Me Too show “accidentally.”
When the performance ended, she went home and wrote 10 pages, purging feelings she had kept inside. Freshman year is a weird time, Fehsenfeld said, when students wonder how they’re supposed to fit in.
She said after the show, people tend to feel more comfortable going to the Duke Women’s Center or Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS).
“The people around me could have written those stories, and it made me aware that there’s a lot more going on,” Fehsenfeld said.
Me Too Monologues received about 80 written submissions and held more than 65 actor auditions this year. Those numbers were pared down to 16 performance pieces.
Dozens of Duke students, faculty and staff filtered into the Nelson Music Room on East Campus on Me Too’s debut night Thursday. At 7:30, the lights lowered, and one of the actresses stood up in the back row, making her way toward the stage.
Coming from the farm, she said, she wanted to be a Duke princess, pretty and petite, not hulking. Striving for perfection and wanting to look more like the other girls, she spiraled into bulimia.
“I found every single stall bathroom in the Gothic wonderland,” she said.
Another actor spoke of a homeless woman approaching a group of Duke students who had just walked out of a restaurant. They declined to give her money. He said first-world problems consume their thoughts, such as: When will Duke bring back the Armadillo Grill food option to campus? Why isn’t there a more diverse selection of vegetarian meals to get through the semester?
“I don’t know. Maybe you should ask a homeless woman,” he said.
Other monologues detailed a one-night, unwanted sexual encounter that ruined a student’s reputation. Another student finds out he’s feeding his girlfriend’s eating disorder. A black student said dating a white girl would mean he’d gain “status.” Another decided to have an abortion, even though she protested Planned Parenthood.
Someone’s mom was diagnosed with breast cancer. Another student was checked into a mental institution for trying to commit suicide. A female student was OK with people knowing she was queer, but felt terrified at the thought of revealing she was poor.
Me Too Monologues performer and Duke global health and cultural anthropology sophomore Zack Fowler said the monologue assigned to him hits close to home – His performance discusses men’s involvement in women’s rights, and how men should be careful about focusing on empowerment rather than “saving” women.
Fowler said he has been involved with women’s rights on campus.
“There’s kind of a shared experience between me and the writer, whether or not I ever meet them,” he said.
Fowler described the stories shared through Me Too Monologues as a start, rather than an end, to encourage activism among students, such as halting rape jokes or standing up for friends victimized by sexual assault.
“There are other stories to be heard,” he said, “and they have to seek them out.”
Additional Me Too Monologues performances are scheduled for Friday and Saturday (Feb. 7 and 8), at 7:30 p.m. in the Nelson Music Room on Duke’s East Campus. Visit metoomonologues.com for more information.