The corridors of the East Duke building were alive Saturday evening. Students lay sprawled across the floor in what loosely resembled a line and loud chatter hung in the air, jumbled and indistinct. It was the second night of programming for Me Too Monologues, an annual show centered around identity that is written, performed and produced by members of the Duke community. The students had been waiting in line for nearly an hour to secure an enviable seat in the Nelson Music Room, which would surely be packed by the end of the night.
What started out as a single, highly-attended show at its commencement in 2009 has become a five-show, two-weekend production with over 2,200 attendants–nearly a third of the undergraduate population at Duke. Me Too Monologues was conceptualized by Duke alumna Priyanka Chaurasia as a platform for the voices that have ostensibly been hushed or ignored on Duke’s campus. Though it has gone through multiple changes and rebirths, the production’s purpose has remained constant.
“Our goal is to always feature as many marginalized voices as we can,” said senior and current executive producer Raina Kishan.
Me Too Monologues is perhaps the most unique theater-going experience available on campus. Every monologue performed onstage is written and submitted anonymously by Duke students, but they aren’t the ones reciting their stories–instead, the monologues are acted out by their peers, creating a disconnect between the material and its portrayal. However, as noted by senior and theatrical director Lauren Rosen, the incongruity is a part of the show’s allure.
“The beauty of [Me Too Monologues] is that when we pair our actors with the stories, we try to turn someone else’s story into something that’s really natural for that actor,” Rosen said. “The idea of Me Too is to sort of convince the audience that the person delivering the story really owns it.”
When it began, Me Too Monologues was mostly comprised of pieces that explored race, ethnicity and culture. As the show expanded, so did the subject material–this year’s production had monologues that dealt with the likes of mental illness, racial epithets, feminism, religion and drug use, a testament to its growing diversity.
“The show really changes based on the pieces that we get. Me Too is really in conversation with itself,” explained senior and executive producer Sydney Speizman. “People feel empowered when they see stories that they really relate to in the show and so then they feel empowered to write their own. That’s how the show is able to evolve so much.”
Evident of the fluid nature of Me Too, the tone of this year’s show is undeniably entangled with the politics of the recent election cycle. Rosen noted that this was a large departure from the attitude of the previous year’s show.
“Last year, there was a lot of discontent with Duke. We had a lot of institutional critiques, in terms of the social and political climate,” Rosen said. “This year, it seems like people were more likely to discuss the social and political climate of our country.”
While the monologues were submitted mere weeks before the election of President Donald Trump, they’re still undeniably tinged with the anger and fear that arose from his campaign. The show opens with a monologue about the fierce difficulty of being a Muslim-American and another monologue mentions that we had a presidential candidate who would rather “build walls than bridges.”
“[Me Too] feels very real and very relatable, and it’s just so relevant,” Speizman said. “Something that’s very powerful is that hearing these personal narratives about these issues that we see on a macro level in the news makes them more accessible and helps people understand them better.”
Still, though, overtly political pieces were not the cornerstone of Me Too’s current run.
“The political climate is definitely a center of our show this year. The pieces directly call out the huge issues in our country,” Kishan said. “But it’s also not the biggest part of the show. In the end, Me Too ties back into Duke. It has the features of huge political issues but it’s still about our campus.”
Many of the pieces, such as those that dealt with being a student on Duke’s campus or being a feminist, garnered head nods and emphatic snapping from the majority of the students in attendance. But some monologues were not as universal, and perhaps only resonated with a smaller fraction of the audience because of their highly personal nature. As Rosen points out, though, this only serves to normalize and underscore such narratives.
“When you hear stories that you’ve never heard before in the same production as stories that you hear and see and live all the time, those more isolating topics become more relatable,” she explained.
Kishan mirrored the sentiment. “The monologues target specific identities but they all have these small issues that everyone can relate to,” she said.
Fundamentally, Me Too Monologues strives to provide a space for Duke students to both speak and listen, fostering a discussion between the production and the audience as well as an internal conversation that will irrevocably follow. At least one piece is guaranteed to stir you or move you deeply, and perhaps present you with perspectives and voices that you haven’t been exposed to enough in the past.
“The ultimate goal is to be able to facilitate and create empathy through stories and be able to start conversations on campus,” Speizman said. “My goal was to tell as many stories as possible. We touched on a lot of topics that we haven’t even covered in years before.”
Such empathy and conversations are important, because when the lights go down and the actors leave the stage, the stories and struggles remain–and it’s crucial that we continue to uplift and value them as much as Me Too Monologues has.
Me Too Monologues is entering its second and final weekend of programming. The show will be performed Feb. 17 at 7 p.m. and Feb. 19 at 7 p.m. in the Nelson Music Room, located in the East Duke Building. Me Too Monologues also has a newly launched podcast, which can be found on their website and in the iTunes store.
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