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Friday, May 14, 2021

The Heart of the Matter

Jaimee Alonso (left) performs a monologue about her character's first trip to Las Vegas. // Photo by Christina Becker
Jaimee Alonso (left) performs a monologue about her character’s first trip to Las Vegas. // Photo by Christina Becker

The script began to write itself. Stories sprung out of the interviewees like they had been locked up for years. A student struggling with their place on the gender spectrum was able to explain how they coped. A deaf student shared experiences of social isolation.

“First Person: Diverse Student Stories,” a play created by Department of Journalism Assistant Professor Maria McLeod, tells the stories of minorities on campus who have faced hardship throughout their lives. Those who have faced poverty, racial adversity, crisis of identity and social isolation all have a place to be heard.

The monologues were crafted out of her extensive interviews with Western students. Those who participated were promised complete anonymity, a unique shield that helped turn personal topics into scripts, McLeod said.

“They were really forthcoming knowing they were going to be anonymous, and that I would change some identifying details to protect their anonymity,” McLeod said. 

Each interview lasted from an hour and a half to two hours, and came out to a 12-20 page transcript, McLeod said. After a monologue began to form, McLeod returned to the students she interviewed to hear their feedback, corrections and suggestions. When the script was nearly complete, the interviewees named the character that McLeod created.

To bring the interviews to the stage, McLeod sought out Western alumna Karee Wardrop. The two worked together on another of McLeod’s plays in 2012, and Wardrop was excited by the challenge.

The process of crafting a piece from such sensitive material was treated delicately, Wardrop said.

“You’re working with someone else’s life, and you need to look at your own life. A lot of emotional things have come up for people working on the show,” Wardrop said.

Taking on the stories required a level of respect from the actors chosen to depict them, Wardrop said.

The play has one overall message: get to know those around you. Recent racially-charged events around the world, like the Black Lives Matter movement and the Syrian refugee crisis inspired McLeod to give a voice to some of Western’s minority students.

“First Person” comes to Western at a time when its message may be most effective, Wardrop said.

“Every time is a good time to meet your neighbors,” Wardrop said. “Especially when things have gotten difficult or things are being exposed and explored, it’s an even better time to go out of our way to try to understand who the person next to us is.”

The first interview inspired the character Noor, the child of Afghani refugees played by senior Tess Nakaishi.

Noor explores how one can hold on to the cultural traditions set by their parents and family while trying to assimilate to the U.S.

The monologue focuses on her struggles to maintain the guise of what it means to be a normal person amidst prejudice against Muslims during conflict around the world, Nakaishi said.

McLeod’s goal of spreading stories of diversity allowed her to apply for the Thaddeus Spratlen and Lois Price-Spratlen Inclusion and Diversity Grant, which she was awarded. The grant offers funding to members of Western faculty who are seeking new approaches to broadening diversity on campus. This opportunity made sharing the narratives a possibility, McLeod said.

Journalism professor Maria McLeod wrote "First Person: Diverse Student Stories."  The play runs Nov. 19-21. // Photo by Christina Becker
Journalism professor Maria McLeod wrote “First Person: Diverse Student Stories.” The play runs Nov. 19-21. // Photo by Christina Becker

Junior Brian Ollivier portrays Slim, a middle-aged veteran who attended Western only to find himself isolated from his peers.

“As an actor I’m always trying to push myself to reach specific depths that I haven’t gone before,” Ollivier said. “Trying to emulate a real person who is most likely still alive today, has been on this campus and has a very real story that I can personally connect with is very challenging.”

Playing Slim, he has been able to translate some of his own life experiences through Slim’s story, Ollivier said.

Ollivier encouraged students to keep something important in mind before they attend.

“We hope that the audience, when we tell them these stories,  listen not only with their ears and their minds, but their hearts,” Ollivier said.

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