A rainbow decal is stuck on the window of the old, wooden church door. A vehicle parked feet away from St. John’s Lutheran Church is adorned with the same prismatic pattern, a color scheme that moves from hot red to a cooling purple. The LGBT rainbow is now as ubiquitous as a “Namaste” sticker or, in the extreme: “Make America Great Again.” The fact that this sticker has long since become universally recognized locally and globally speaks volumes about the gains and ongoing struggles of the international LGBT community. The fact that the sticker is so prominently displayed on a historic Springfield church is a testament that Jacksonville is arguably more progressive than some might think.
The church is the de facto rehearsal space for the Coming Out Monologues. Now in its sixth year, the production features people from the local LGBT community telling their stories of “coming out.” In addition, the Monologues (COM) features LGBT allies telling about becoming supportive members of that very same community. From its inception, Tina Vaughn has been COM’s producer, tireless champion and whatever other title helps propel and maintain the momentum of this unique mixture of memoir and theater.
The show hits the stage in two weeks. Vaughn and co-producer Christine Avery stand in the back of the church as cast members gradually arrive for the 2:30 p.m. read-through; some are joking, sipping giant iced coffees. Others seem more pensive, if not nervous, waiting to be called up to tell their story from memory and “off script.”
“Coming Out Monologues is a storytelling project whereby we seek out the stories of LGBT folks, as well as allies, in our community, to showcase in a theatrical setting,” says Vaughn. The heart of the show’s very nature is the storytelling. Accordingly, story coaches Travis Sauter-Hunsberger, Love Reigns, Chris Guarino and Mike Vatter offer help, as needed, to the storytellers when they relate their experiences. As each monologue caps out in the 5 to 7 minute range, capturing each person’s character and experiences in a concise timeframe is a bit of a formidable undertaking. During the stage show, cast members wear unifying black-and-purple color schemes, making a simple yet effective fashion statement. If the receptions of previous shows are any indication, COM has been successful in allowing cast members to tell their stories, while keeping the production moving along in a smooth rhythm.
“This [COM] is also a catalyst for understanding, raw and powerful truth-telling, as well as connecting folks who might otherwise believe their differences to be insurmountable,” Vaughn explains. “On a deeper level, our production is less about ‘coming out’ as a single moment in time, [but] rather the evolution of a single human’s experience of coming to terms with—not only their purpose—but how they experience love and attraction; how they understand themselves among others, envision their future and would define or make sense of their past.”
This year’s COM is co-directed by Kyle Sieg and Crystal Solie, neither of whom were available to attend this particular rehearsal. Vaughn slips naturally into director mode.
“Is everybody ready?” asks Vaughn.
Tiffany Rose is up first.
“No,” says Rose, half-jokingly.
Along with Rose, this year’s storytellers (in order of appearance) are Chet Wilkinson, Adam Nathaniel Davis, Tobias Sparks, Trinity Cotton, Alexandra Cotton, Shelly Roberts, Jeff Vatter-Murnin, Michael Vatter-Murnin, James Pope and Karen Smith-Scott. Their ages range from preteen to 70s, each with stories that are different yet, in some elemental ways, wholly the same. Depression, suicidal thoughts, fears of violence both threatened and delivered … confusion, self-loathing and being forced to lie by a duplicitous, seething society that at times has a furious view toward LGBT people.
“I think when LGBT folks are coming to the show, they become more empowered to join us the next year,” says Vaughn of the kind of grassroots, self-perpetuating energy sustaining and driving the show. “That’s really how this keeps happening. It’s almost like a cycle.”
Vaughn jokes that COM starts preparing for each year’s production, “The day before opening night of the previous year.” Since the stories for the show are sourced from the community, an open-call policy means all are welcome to submit their stories for possible inclusion in the event.
The camaraderie is evident during this rehearsal, as are playfulness, anxiety and deep emotions attached to what seem to be even deeper memories. One cast member seems a little too rattled to speak and, after a few minutes, cuts the monologue short. Another member weeps throughout the storytelling, a raw account of prejudice, terror and eventual acceptance. When they’re done, they apologize for tearing up during what has been a cathartic experience for everyone sitting in the church pews.
“No, no, no!” exhorts Vaughn. “Keep that, keep that!” Fellow cast members chime in with encouragement.
The rehearsal comes to a pause. The Revs. Victoria and William Hamilton, the pastors who oversee St. John’s, sit in the pews among the cast. Central to the Hamiltons’ progressive religious view is universal inclusion. Pastor William stresses the church’s “all are welcome” policy. He says that welcoming all genders has never really been an issue for St. John’s, then jokes about being an African-American preacher with a congregation that is 90 percent white. “I’d like to think we are batting a pretty good game,” he laughs.
Aside from venue and production costs, each year COM donates its earnings to JASMYN and PFLAG. Since Vaughn began staging the production in 2012, she says COM has donated approximately $65,000 to the two nonprofits that help the local LGBT community through various programs.
The landmark passing of the HRO bill this past Valentine’s Day was a long overdue step forward for greater equal rights for the LGBT community. Yet Vaughn says the production really shies away from overt politics. “After all, we are trying to invite everyone to hear people’s experiences.”
The raw self-disclosure of COM taps into the commonality of being, the shared, universal moments and feelings of isolation and inclusion, anguish and joy, even acceptance and liberation.
“That’s honestly what we want to do,” explains Vaughn. Along with shedding some light onto the LGBT community, and donating monies to JASMYN and PFLAG, Vaughn offers that COM also hopes to focus on the positives of what we share rather than the fears that can tear us apart. Vaughn says that some of the best feedback she’s received has been from people who didn’t understand, or even refused to understand, the LGBT community.
“We want all people thinking of their lives in terms of stories and finding connection with other humans, people who they probably thought they had nothing in common with.”