Student Play ‘Unlabeled’ Explores Intersections of Sex, Race and Gender Expression

Taking a page from feminist playwright Eve Ensler, three students decided to bring her famous play “The Vagina Monologues” to their classmates at Hunter College. “Unlabeled,” a play created by women and gender studies and theater student Penny Deen, aimed to take an inclusive approach to Ensler’s play. Deen and her co-producers Andi Sauer and Annabelle May encouraged students to get involved and share their stories in the virtual production.

Traditionally, “The Vagina Monologues,” which is performed frequently on college campuses,  explores women’s experiences with sex, gender violence and sex work through the use of  various monologues. The show has been criticized in the past for its absence of queer individuals and their stories, but “Unlabeled” decided to flip the script. The play explored the intersections of sex, race and gender expression through its speakers. Deen’s ultimate goal was to create a show with a political purpose that would really hit home for students.

Though production was halted when distance learning forced students off campus, the show still went on with nine students who each performed deeply personal pieces. The compilation of monologues, poems and spoken word pieces in “Unlabeled” explored intersectional feminist values through the eyes of young adults navigating their lives and the experiences that shaped them.

Deen and her co-producers wanted to create a space where people of all backgrounds could share their stories, regardless of what the subject matter may be. “I think there’s power in being honest, I think there’s power in being loud, I think there’s power in destigmatizing and talking about these things,” Deen said. “Otherwise these things are always going to be taboo and are never going to be fixed or addressed.” Each story managed to hit a deeply personal note while still discussing subject matter that many students could resonate with.

Molloy College student Ava Diane Tyson opened the show with a monologue by student Zena Bracero that delved into the complexities of gender pronouns and growing up yearning for the opportunity to comfortably live with they/them pronouns. “As an adult I feel like I’m assuming the gender of ‘she’ to make my life easier,” Tyson said, exploring a painful reality for many people who struggle to accept their own identities. Other monologues also touched on the theme of gender and its fluidity. In a lighthearted performance, student Brie Underwood discussed the complexities of living as a nonbinary individual. “I know what you’re thinking. You’re taking one look at me and going, ‘Male? Female? Trans? What?’ Well first off, if I wasn’t presenting this for you, you don’t need to know,” they said.

Image courtesy of Penny Deen

“Unlabeled” also recognized the marginalized within the LGBTQ community. With a spoken word piece, rising senior Jimmy Platto closed the show, honoring the lives of the recently slain Black trans individuals, Nina Pop and Tony McDade, whose stories have been at the forefront of the fight for justice for Black LGBTQ people. Platto’s mention of the Black Lives Matter movement, currently at a peak, closed out their slot about queerness and questioning the idea of gender as binary.

While some spoke on their experiences identifying as gender nonbinary, others spoke about their struggles with body image and body dysmorphia. In her monologue, student Anastasia Parks recounted her childhood insecurities and her journey toward self-acceptance. “It’s torture feeling like you won’t be happy in the body you will ultimately die in,” she said. “As the years went on, I slowly learned to love myself, but it is a constant battle between the cheerleader and the critic.”

May performed a piece by spoken word poet Blythe Baird that discussed double standards for people who suffer with eating disorders. “If you develop an eating disorder when you are already thin to begin with, you go to the hospital,” she read out with emotion. “If you develop an eating disorder when you are not thin to begin with, you are a success story.”

Speaking about depression and sexual assault, Deen described her process of recovery and how her past shaped her into who she is today. “You don’t move on from things, you move forward with them,” she said in her performance, sending a powerful message to people who harbor trauma and may still be sifting through their own pain.

Another student took an epistolary approach to her monologue to discuss being a first-generation Indian-American. “Dear 15-year-old Priya,” she said, in a piece that went on to give advice to her past self on how to navigate the harsh realities of her experiences as a minority woman. Much of “Unlabeled” took on this melancholic tone, but was offset by a particular overarching message: no matter what struggles you face, authenticity and self-love are what really matter. 

The show was originally expected to run sometime in March, but after being uprooted as a result of the COVID-19 crisis, it aired June 10 on YouTube Premieres. The three co-producers were advised by their feminist theater professor, Carmelina Cartei, who received a shoutout in the show’s introduction as to thank her for her contributions.

“Unlabeled” aimed to be a reminder for people of all walks of life to respect each other and open their minds to stories outside their realms of understanding. While the situation surrounding production may have been less than ideal, Deen was grateful for still being able to put on a show that she felt conveyed this message. “I hope people see it and are like ‘I hope they do this again next year,’ and want to share their stories. I really want this to become tradition and to become a thing. I wanted to challenge people to listen to someone else be completely honest about their story.”

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