Arts & Humanities

‘The Story of Us’ creates community through drama

Alumni, archivists and a star-studded cast will bring experiences of LGBTQ+ Tar Heels to life on stage this weekend.

The words The Story of Us superimposed on a group photo

In this occasional series about Carolina Next: Innovations for Public Good, The Well looks at how staff, faculty and students are turning the words of the strategic plan into reality.

Carolina Next: Innovations for the Public Good

This Saturday and Sunday, 19 actors including an Academy-Award winner and a Broadway performerwill tell the stories of 27 LGBTQ+ Tar Heels in The Process Series production of “The Story of Us.” The show has been years in the making but also comes at a time when the LGBTQ+ community is facing fresh challenges, such as Tennessee’s outlawing of public drag shows and Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” law, banning classroom instruction on sexual orientation or gender identity.

Joseph Megel

Joseph Megel

“What I love about this experience is that you’re going to see lots of human beings telling their stories,” said Joseph Megel, artistic director of The Process Series and a teaching professor in the College of Arts and Sciences’ communication department. These stories humanize what can be abstract issues from the headlines, such as the “don’t ask, don’t tell” ban on gay and lesbian service members from 1993 to 2011 and the AIDS epidemic of the 1980s.

“The Story of Us”

When: 7 p.m. April 15; 2 p.m. April 16

Where: Mandela Auditorium, FedEx Global Education Center

How: Reserve seats online. Performances are free, but a $10 donation per ticket is recommended.

The Story of Us poster with head shots and text identifying actors: Naveed Moeed, David Adamson, Donna Dyke, David Terry, Chris Chiron, Elisabeth Corley, Tekay, Vivienne Benesch, Steven Dobbins, Eric Rosen, Sam Peterson, E. Patrick Johnson, DJ VSPRTN, Cedric Brown, Lean Woehr, Max Von Essen, Janora McDuffie, Andrew Carlberg, Thurston Cherry, Philip McAdoo

The words are taken directly from recordings made by the Southern Oral History Program and archived digitally in University Archives at Wilson Library. The script weaves together individual stories based on common themes: childhood, getting to Carolina, coming out, AIDS and life after college.

“Each of these could be a one-person show, but seeing all the stories shoulder to shoulder in the FedEx Center has a different type of power,” Megel said. “And it’s us. It’s not just one or two. It’s a collective ‘us’ that brings an additional dimension to the experience.”

Collective experience

While much of Carolina Next, the University’s strategic plan, focuses on making change through policies and procedures, “The Story of Us” shows how Tar Heels took a more creative approach to the first initiative, “Build Our Community Together.”

“The Story of Us” project not only spotlighted an often-overlooked part of the Tar Heel community, but it also brought together people from across campus and beyond to create something of lasting educational, historical, cultural and artistic significance.

The idea for the project began in the Carolina Pride Alum Network, launched by the University Development Office in 2017 as an alumni affinity group, said Shawne Grabs, senior regional development officer. Since then, more than 1,500 Tar Heels have self-identified to join.

Build Our Community Together

Objective 1.1: Invest in policies, systems and infrastructure that promote belonging, community and transparency throughout the University community.

“The Story of Us” illustrates the strategic opportunity to “engage the Carolina community to understand what constitutes a sense of belonging on campus and develop best practices for creating such an environment.”

The group raised $100,000 for “The Story of Us,” which developed in these phases:

  • Collecting personal stories and experiences of students, faculty, staff and alumni through the Southern Oral History Program.
  • Bringing together these oral histories with existing materials (manuscripts, photographs, recordings and digital files) to create an online University Archive collection and a physical archive housed at Wilson Library. (The online gateway to the collection is an interactive, map-based exhibit called “Queerolina.”)
  • Developing a performance based on these materials in a Process Series production in the College of Arts and Sciences’ communication department.

Voices you know, stories you don’t

“The Story of Us” includes the stories of “Sweet Tea” author and academic E. Patrick Johnson, former Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt and LGBTQ Center director Terri Phoenix. Among the actors telling the stories are Academy Award-winning film producer Andrew Carlberg, “Lion King” Broadway actor Philip McAdoo and PlayMakers Repertory Company producing artistic director Vivienne Benesch.

One of the show’s most enthusiastic performers is actor Janora McDuffie, who had a recurring role as a social worker on “Grey’s Anatomy” and was the announcer for 2022 Oscars show (yes, the one with the Will Smith slap heard ’round the world). Her latest movie, “Praise This,” a story about a gospel choir competition that she calls “a funny and uplifting musical event,” debuted on Peacock over Easter weekend.

Janora McDuffie

Janora McDuffie

McDuffie, a Morehead-Cain scholar at Carolina and a “proud woman with a wife,” joined the CPAN board to increase its diversity. “I knew I was a woman, I was feminine-presenting and I was Black. I wanted to be there for that gay student or that questioning alum who hadn’t had the courage to come out. And if she doesn’t see someone who looks like her or identifies like her, she might step back in the closet.”

McDuffie is also one of the few actors (Johnson is another) who’ll be sharing her own story, recorded earlier for “The Story of Us” archive. “I shared my journey from being a Durham girl, my first girlfriend and how I found out my wife was the one,” said McDuffie in a Zoom interview from Los Angeles.

“Understand that the idea of gays at Carolina is nothing new. These folks existed from when Carolina’s doors first opened,” McDuffie said. But “The Story of Us” gave alumni an opportunity to share their individual experiences. “You get a sense of shared humanity and wanting that for everyone. But the fight is still going on. There’s legislation out there that threatens our right to exist.”

Megel echoed McDuffie’s concerns, also seeing the current environment as another reason for more LGBTQ+ people to share their stories with the archive — possibly even another show.

“This work is not done,” he said. “There are so many more stories. And they’re all rich and compelling. And we need them.”