This post originally appeared on the Library as Incubator Project in June 2013.

It’s summer “vacation” for us here in the States, and that means we’re fortunate enough to have Brandon Monokian return to the Incubator Project to guest blog about his wonderful Page to Stage series. This program, which brings works of literature to life right in the Princeton Public Library, is entering its third year of existence. We’re thrilled to have Brandon writing for us once again. ~ Laura

by Brandon Monokian

For my first big post graduation New York City audition, I found myself walking in time to music while pulling a burlap sack. On that sack stood a girl holding tree branches. What started as tentative, what-the-heck-am-I-doing baby steps turned into a swag filled stride as the assistant choreographer enthusiastically said “YES” after my first few steps. I had booked the job.

I had another job lined up immediately after – a rarity I didn’t appreciate at the time.It was a directing job, presenting a production of The Laramie Project. I would sit backstage during rehearsals for my acting gig and sob as I read The Laramie Project script. I think at the time I thought I was sobbing just because it was sad, but as I moved into rehearsals, I realized I was really sobbing because it was the kind of work that changes you as a human being. Created out of interviews with residents of the town of Laramie, Wyoming, it depicted real life peoples’ response to the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard who was killed for being gay. I don’t think for one second the cast or my amazing assistant director Victoria Fear ever approached the work as “another play.” In fact we spent most of our rehearsal time just having discussions about hate crimes, bullying, global events and personal stories, not actually running the play! We wanted to open doors for conversations and make people aware of how we were treating one another in our daily lives. One big question mark loomed over our heads as the show came to a close: “What now?” So often in theatre you have these life changing experiences, and then you move on to a new job and many times it’s like the show that had such an impact on you never happened.

It was around the time that The Laramie Project was coming to an end that I found out the book Revolutionary Voices: A Multicultural Queer Youth Anthology had been banned from my former High School and public libraries due to “sexual content.” I believe the article title on Jezebel “Library Pulls Queer Youth Anthology, Leaves Joy of Sex” proves that this wasn’t an attack on sexual content, but homosexual content. After reading the book (which was very hard to find since it was out of print), I was so moved by the stories shared I wanted to do something to fight the libraries’ decisions.

Katie McGhee in Revolutionary Readings at Princeton Public Library.

Katie McGhee in Revolutionary Readings at Princeton Public Library.

I met up with Laramie Project assistant director Victoria, and our good friend and amazing theatre artist Katie McGhee, and we sat on Victoria’s furniture-less apartment floor (she was moving out) and together we came up with what would turn into Revolutionary Readings. We were all freshly graduated and had no idea what to do in this crazy big world with our theatre degrees that had any sort of value. Maybe this would be it. Together with a group of fellow theatre artists (the majority of which being theLaramie Project cast reunited) we would go perform readings from the book to protest its banning.

At first we were just begging places to let us come perform, but eventually we started being invited places we never dreamed as possibilities for performances such as Rutgers University, the NJLA Conference and as a part of the Princeton Public Library’s Tedx program. We got to speak alongside the book’s editor, the amazing, inspiring and groundbreaking Amy Sonnie, and one of the book’s contributing authors Qwo-Li Driskill read at one of our performances.

Although the book was never unbanned, something more important happened: more people than ever before were exposed to these beautiful writings in this out of print anthology.

Not only were people exposed to the work through our performances, but libraries such as the Princeton Public Library who didn’t have the book in stock found it and stocked it on their shelves! Had it never been banned, this out of print 2000 anthology never would have found a whole new audience in 2010 and on.

NJLA Conference with Amy Sonnie.

NJLA Conference with Amy Sonnie.

The words in this book are powerful. Really powerful. So many people would come up to us after performances, take us by the hands and say “thank you,” or “this is me in these stories.” The poetry, stories and art in Revolutionary Voices is the type of work that makes people feel not only comfortable in who they are, but powerful. This is the kind of work that needs to be available, not banned because of the homophobic ideals of a small group of nuts. By banning this out of print anthology, you are silencing these voices. It was our goal that these voices would not be silenced, but heard louder than ever. I think we did just that.

Now the Princeton Public Library has invited us to perform in their community room for the third time, this time as part of the Page to Stage series I helped create with librarian Janie Hermann – a program that is now in it’s third year. It’s amazing revisiting this because it’s not a piece I do much anymore, and every time I do a performance or read the book, I discover something new about the beautiful anthology. I’m excited to present this performance with theatre artists like Kaitlin Overton, Amanda Guzman, Jose Paz and Daria Feneis, all of whom were involved in The Laramie Project and the beginnings of Revolutionary Readings over three years ago, and new faces Hannah Rolfes and Corey Hafner.

With current news headlines such as “Anne Frank’s Diary Too ‘Pornographic’ For 7th-Grade Students, Claims Michigan Parent” we are reminded that book banning and the desire to restrict access to knowledge is not something of the ancient past, it is current, which is why Revolutionary Readings remains important. It is also important stand on stage and celebrate the beautiful writings of a youth anthology that is truly revolutionary.

Brandon Monokian works professionally as an actor, writer and director. One of South Jersey Magazine’s “Names to Know,” Mr. Monokian most recently had his original play Grimm Women show at Philadelphia’s Adrienne Theater and N.Y.C’s Kraine Theater which starred Briella Calafiore from Jerseylicious. He can be seen in the Princeton Public Library produced mini documentary Page to Stage: Bringing Literature to Life which highlights the arts programming he helped create for the library and was a guest speaker for their Tedx series (view his Tedx talk and performance). Twitter @brandonmonokian

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