Powerful stories shared at Breaking Ground Monologues

Christy Carley

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Illustration by Lya Hernandez.

Whitman’s annual Breaking Ground Monologues provide a space for community members to share stories of struggle, identity and growth.

2015 marks the third year of the Breaking Ground Monologues organized by the student group Feminists Advocating for Change and Empowerment (FACE). The monologues are a time for Whitman students, staff, faculty and alumni to record and share their stories, as well as an opportunity for other members of the community to listen and connect with their experiences. All proceeds from the event go to STEP Women’s Shelter in Walla Walla.

FACE used to present The Vagina Monologues, a series of scripted monologues written by feminist activist and playwright Eve Ensler that originated from interviews she conducted with women around the world. While The Vagina Monologues deal specifically with topics related to the female experience, Breaking Ground is more inclusive, including topics such as mental health, gender identity and sexuality.

“The change came about from a desire to give members of the Whitman community here and now voice, rather than repeating the same –– albeit powerful –– performances year after year, performances which might be very relatable but did not originate from the Whitman community,” said senior Erica Nkwocha, FACE co-president, in an email to The Pioneer.

Jake Schwimmer, a senior psychology major, said his decision to write and perform a monologue was spontaneous.

“I kind of just did it on a whim,” he said. “I thought it would be good to get my voice out there.”

Schwimmer spoke of his struggles with depression and fitting in following his diagnosis with autism at age two. He talked about the challenges he faces with social interactions and the general misconceptions that people hold about mental illness.

He said that people often encourage him to put mind over matter, suggesting that he should try to overcome his autism or depression on his own.

“It’s way harder than just saying that,” said Schwimmer. “I sometimes feel like autism inhibits me in a way that I just don’t understand.”

Schwimmer saw the monologues as a way of bringing people together and increasing understanding, as well as an empowering experience for performers.

“It’s really rewarding for other people to know the thoughts or experiences of other people that they might not necessarily know about … It kind of makes us all realize that we’re all human and we all go through these kinds of things,” said Schwimmer. “For the people performing them … it kind of gets everything out there, and they feel good about it afterwards. It’s like a weight of their chest.”

While Schwimmer performed his own monologue, some writers chose to have other actors perform their monologues instead. First-year Emily Johnson was asked by a friend to perform a monologue related to sexual assault. When asked to perform the piece, Johnson said she was honored and agreed right away.

“If this is helping her, then why would I say no?” she said.

Johnson did mention, however, that the task of embodying someone else and relaying their experiences to an audience wasn’t easy.

“For me it’s a story, for her it’s her life,” she said.

Johnson has not had similar experiences to those which her friend had undergone, and it was difficult for her hear the details of her friend’s story.

“[Sexual assault] is not a one-time thing. I think that’s the hardest thing for me to wrap my head around,” said Johnson. “We like to think that everything ends so quickly … [but] it’s not a hop skip and jump, it’s a marathon.”

She said she was chosen to perform in part because her friend thought they shared a sense of humor, which would help Johnson convey certain lines in the monologue.

“When I first read it I felt really anxious and my heart was beating really fast … It’s very common throughout all of literature to have those comedic reliefs, and I think it’s necessary,” said Johnson. “[Humor is] a way to cope and de-stigmatize.”

In addition to including humor, many of the monologues were accompanied by movement, which helped to express emotional truth. Performers spoke with passion, honesty and confidence, receiving a standing ovation when they joined hands for curtain call.

This year was senior Molly Emmett’s second time attending the monologues. She said the event is empowering for everyone involved.

“Some of these things aren’t just going to come up in random conversation … A night like this where it’s dedicated to hearing their stories and asking us to really listen I think is so important,” said Emmett. “I was honestly moved by every performance and I got chills multiple times.”

When the monologues were over, many audience members remained in the foyer to show support to writers and performers. Hugs were exchanged as people took time to discuss what they heard.

“I knew a lot of the people performing, and I really wanted to show them support,” said first-year Jamie Willard.

Willard said she sees the monologues as a necessary reminder to the Whitman community.

“[The monologues are] an affirmation of something that we try to do every day, which is remember that everyone you meet has a story,” said Willard.

Johnson, like Schwimmer, said she hopes the monologues help bring people together and understand one another’s struggles.

“This is an event … [that] really sticks with you,” she said.

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