The MENding Monologues: A Vulnerable Masculinity

Arts and CultureTheatre

Co-directors Ryan De Leon (left) and Justin Abadejos (right) with cast behind them, on opening night. Connor Gorry / The Triton

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The MENding Monologues opens like a Macklemore song.

“When I was a kid, I often wondered if I was gay,” declared second-year student Chris Doherty, reciting “Man Up,” a canon monologue that details the story of a straight man who likes theater and dance.

“But just as I can’t deny that I am a singing, dancing, musical man, I can’t deny that I am a MAN,” he said later, in the crux of the piece. “I needed the thrill of the chase, the power of agency, the daring of a challenge, and the strength of passion.”

It is an inauspicious beginning for a production that contains some truly profound moments.

The MENding Monologues focuses on “gender violence issues from a male perspective.” It contains various meditations on the nature of masculinity, and the harms that gender norms can have on men and women. It’s the younger brother to the more famous Vagina Monologues, and combines an official canon of pre-written pieces with the fluidity to create new monologues, each reflecting the personal, lived experience of the man performing it.

Five of the monologues are written by this year’s cast, and I would argue they are some of the strongest pieces of the show. Powerfully personal, deeply connected to this year’s theme of the “Modern Man,” these men muse on masculinity, and tell their own stories honestly and from the heart.

In “The Odyssey,” Jesse O’Sullivan reveals intimate secrets about a past toxic relationship. In “Defining the Undefined,” David Beale wrestles with what it means to own his identity as a queer man of color, with few role models to guide the way. His tale of slowly learning to be proud of himself is beautifully heartwarming.  

Few of these personal stories are explicitly about the monologues’ ostensible focus of gender-based violence, but all of them touch upon this production’s theme of discovering the modern man. Audience members can hear undercurrents of deep fears, rarely expressed.

One such sentiment, in the middle of the monologue “Hotel Room,” stood out.

“I thought [girls] all wanted to hear the put down and sarcastic remarks that were a staple of my dad’s romantic game,” the monologue said. “I’m still scared I’m going to become him.”

“Hotel Room,” is the life story of one of the performers. These days, he’s a success story — graduating college this year, with high involvement in the life of the university and impressive achievements. But the past holds pain. A chaotic childhood in hotel rooms with inconsistent schooling and parents struggling with addiction leaves its scars. He wrestles with what it means to define his own manhood, and who he wants to be in the world, without relying on his father’s flawed example.

It’s a rare thing to hear about the troubling side of masculinity from men directly, but it’s not an accident.

“This is absolutely an important thing, that we show allyship and also get our own stories out there,” said co-director Ryan De Leon. “There are a lot of things that cannot be shared within male spaces.” De Leon has been a part of a fraternity for four years at UC San Diego, and played lacrosse on a men’s team here as well.

“Both of those spaces are known and famous for toxic masculinity and I’ve always had different sentiments that have differentiated me from my peers,” De Leon said. “I never got a chance to share them or be in a community of other males that acknowledged those problems.” He jumped at the chance to put on The MENding Monologues.

De Leon performed two pieces himself, one from the canon and one he composed. The canon piece, “Unreasonable Doubt,” is a somber story of surviving childhood sexual assault, and living for years with an esteem-shattering sense of culpability for the other man’s act of violence. De Leon’s own composition, “Brotherly Love,” articulates concerns about hazing and alcohol overuse in fraternities, asking, “What are the true goals of the American fraternity?”  

Yet, there are still troubling aspects to The MENding Monologues, pre-written in the canon pieces. The opening piece, “Man Up,” directly says, “The need to control and dominate and react with force — all of these are intrinsic to the male psyche.” The second piece, “The Apologist,” confusingly suggests that men should stand up for women, but also that men understand what is sexist better than women, and thus shouldn’t apologize for accidentally saying something sexist.  

Then too, a number of of the pieces talk about various aspects of being gay, including being closeted, engaging with women, and coming to self-acceptance.  But bizarrely, the pre-written pieces by straight men still seem to assume everyone is straight. One concludes by telling fathers to say to their sons, “One day you will meet your opposite and your complement. And she will test you in ways you can’t even imagine.”

The MENding Monologues also shares one of the largest flaws of The Vagina Monologues, in that the canon pieces routinely equate genitalia with gender.

“I do not like vaginas,” says the monologue “The Greatest Ally,” performed by Matt Albaira. “I do not like them, because I am gay.” It escapes everyone’s notice that there are men with vaginas, including gay men with vaginas.

“Women definitely don’t have the same relationship with their vaginas that we have with our dicks,” says the monologue “Seeing,” performed by co-director Justin Abadejos. This monologue takes a seed of something mentioned in The Vagina Monologues, of a woman who felt empowered by having a man look at her vagina, and explores that dynamic from the perspective of the man in question. It is a sweet story of connection with a lover. But sometimes, rather than just being one person’s story, it takes on the air of the universal, as if it’s speaking about how all women or all men relate to their bodies.

The members of The MENding Monologues acknowledge that, because of the rapidity of the production cycle (under two months long), some kinds of voices are not represented.

“Where we do lack is we don’t have the trans perspective,” said De Leon. “For future productions, I would advise reaching out to LGBTQ centers, women’s centers, just to try and gain additional perspectives, but at the same time, what we were able to do with our current cast is tell our stories. And our stories are by no means all-inclusive, but they are our stories.”

And the cast has found the experience meaningful. That space of an intentionally cultivated community around masculine vulnerability is unusual.

“It’s good to be able to talk about these things with other men,” said Matt Albaira, who performed the monologue “The Greatest Ally.” “What we have right now is a good starting point and we’re making good use of the identities that we have. I’m really glad that David wrote his own piece about being queer and a person of color.”

“It’s been eye-opening, honestly,” said Mo Shir, who performed “Tantra.” “In other places, they don’t talk about the things we talk about here. They don’t talk about our identities, or what helps shape our identities.” Shir loved The Vagina Monologues, and has seen it each year he’s been at UCSD, and admired the way it talked about important issues.

“Since the Vagina Monologues gave a space predominantly for women to talk about them, I thought it would be nice to see if there was a male counterpart to it,” Shir said. “And at the last VagMo they said they wanted to bring it to UCSD. The second they said that, I said to my girlfriend, ‘Hang on, save our seats,’ and I stood up. I didn’t even think twice about. I just thought ‘Oh, that’s definitely what I’m interested in.”

While this is the first year The MENding Monologues has been produced at UCSD, the directors introduce the monologues as being “The First Annual MENding Monologues at UCSD.”

“I really hope that next year it would still be here,” said Albaira. While Albaira is graduating this year, he hopes other members will continue the project. “I think it’s an important conversation that we’re starting.”

The MENding Monologues has a cast of all men and a crew of all women, an unplanned circumstance thrown into sharp relief by the concluding number, “Who Pays the Bill?” Written by co-director Justin Abadedos, for this final piece, all the members of the cast and crew spread throughout the crowded room. Rather than an ordinary monologue, it sounded as if all of them, both cast and crew, were discussing a question. The question is bigger than who pays for dinner on a date — fundamentally, it asks what is worth retaining of old notions of masculinity, and what can be discarded.

It is a fitting ending. At its best, The MENding Monologues creates a space to think and talk about how notions of manhood continue to shape our world, how toxic masculinity affects people of all genders, and what to do about it. It transcends the medium, and becomes a dialogue. Like the participants, the production is vulnerable, powerfully moving, inspiring, and still learning and growing. They don’t claim to have all the answers to the world’s problems, but they’re committed to being part of the mending process. I look forward to attending again next year.

If you’re interested in finding out more about The MENding Monologues, you can check out their Facebook page here.

Jaz Twersky is the Editor-in-Chief of The Triton.

Update, June 16, 2017: This piece has been updated to remove the name and identifying information of one of the performers, at his request, in order to respect his privacy and the privacy of his family.