One woman was sex trafficked as a child. One man is a mathematician even though his high school teacher didn’t think Blacks could do math.
One woman said she grew up in a time “when freedom hung like a dreamcatcher on a rear-view mirror.” One described himself as “an uppity Black man who made good trouble.”
Twelve Chattanooga residents, ranging in age from their 70s to 98 years old, agreed to have their life memories—good and bad—transformed into dramatic monologues for “Unmasking: Elders Speak.” The production is helmed by Dr. Peggy Douglas, adjunct professor of economics in the Gary W. Rollins College of Business at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and Dr. Anne Swedberg, associate professor of theatre at UTC.
Writer David Cook, former columnist for the Chattanooga Times Free Press, helped Douglas gather the stories and was the moderator for the performance and discussion afterward.
A performance of “Unmasking: Elders Speak” took place Aug. 20 at Barking Legs Theatre and presented memories from, among others, Tennessee Rep. Joanne Favors, former Chattanooga Times editorial writer Pat Wilcox, former Chattanooga City Council member Moses Freeman and yoga instructor Howard Brown.
Another performance with the same monologues and actors is scheduled for Sept. 10 at Barking Legs.
Douglas, a playwright and poet who has directed several local theater productions, has produced “Unmasking” performances 10 times since 2018. The monologues have included memories from factory workers, miners, inmates at Silverdale Detention Center and those with mental health issues.
“Generally, I don’t interview,” Douglas explained. “I just give them all the power and say, ‘What would you like me to know about you?’ and then I listen for a couple hours.
“Once they tell me their story, I write a poetic monologue that can be performed, and I take it back to them and we get it to where they’re happy with it.”
With Douglas’ monologues in hand, Swedberg finds people to perform them. Sometimes the actors are theater students, alumni, faculty or staff from UTC. Sometimes they’re just people from Chattanooga.
“I think everybody who performs these monologues is someone who enjoys poetry, public speaking, acting, so even if they’re not trained as an actor, they come from a background where they’ve done a lot of interacting with the public, with an audience of some sort, even if it’s not a theatrical audience,” Swedberg said.
She has directed the past four “Unmasking” productions but started out as an actor in Douglas’ “Southern Exposure,” a look at the lives of those who grew up in the South in the 1950s and ’60s. While the “Unmasking” performances are a form of theater, they require a different kind of acting, Swedberg said.
“It was personal; it was intimate. It is not acting on the scale that you’re doing a musical theater performance, for example. I would say the most important thing is presence. Just being able to breathe, stand there on the stage, and engage with the audience in sharing this particular story with them.”
Isaiah Owens, a senior theatre major at UTC, performed the monologue for local yoga teacher Anthony Crutcher in “Unmasking: Elders Speak.”
“For me as an actor, being able to portray a real-life individual was exhilarating, beautiful, scary but all-around rewarding,” Owens said. “Reading what Anthony Crutcher went through left me in awe and appreciation for the community elders.”
During “Unmasking” performances, the people who talked about their lives are in the audience when the monologue is taking place. In most cases, the actors already have met the person whose story they are presenting.
“That gives them a sense of responsibility that: I’m representing this person, and there is a reverence there,” Douglas said.
After the performances are completed, a discussion takes place with the audience to talk about what they’ve heard and what they’ve learned. Doing so turns “Unmasking” into something more profound, Douglas said.
“It’s not just entertainment. It’s creating an opportunity for social change,” she said.
“I hope my generation does them proud by following their examples but, at the same time, evolving to create a beautiful community that will lead to a beautiful world.”
“Unmasking: Elders Speak” is sponsored by Mark Making, ArtsBuild, Tennessee Arts Commission and Humanities Tennessee.
- Dollie Hamilton
- Pat Wilcox
- Everlena Holmes
- Deb Clardy
- Anthony Crutcher
- Moses Freeman
- Howard Brown
- Barbara McCuistion
- Widamark Aragon
- Mimi Neighbors Nikkel
- Jo Ann Favors
- Momota Ghosh