Highlands University Student Performs in Gaza-Monologues at the United Nations Nov. 29
Tiffany Neeley tapes her breasts to flatten them, and dons worn Levis, a hip-length olive jacket and scuffed black boots. She stuffs her Ghirardelli dark chocolate hair under a beanie cap and twists a white scarf around her neck to further hide her feminine features. Her prop is a box of cigarettes. She’s Ashraf, a teenage boy whose world explodes along with the bomb that killed his brother during the Israeli bombings of the war-torn Gaza Strip in December 2008 and January 2009.
November 29. Neeley’s stage is the United Nations in New York City, where the 22-year-old New Mexico Highlands University student will perform one of 33 kick-in-the-gut monologues, spilling the pain of Palestinian youth who survived the three-week armed conflict, as it’s euphemistically called, and live in a Middle East region marked by centuries of strife. Neeley is part of an international cast presenting the Gaza-Monologues, a production of the Palestine-based ASHTAR Theatre.
“It’s very intense material and so sad,” she takes a breath, gathering her thoughts. “When we had the first read through, my first reaction was man, this is important and powerful. This isn’t just a monologue, it’s someone’s life, and I need to get it right. I am the vessel for their voice to be heard here in America. A project like this humbles you, and brings you back to earth. There are so many people in the world who literally fight for their lives, waking up every day wondering if this is the day they will die, and how much it will hurt. In the Gaza Strip their only attainable dream is to live another day, and they want their bodies to be intact when they die,” Neeley says.
Neeley’s monologue is written by 16-year-old Ashraf, whose brother Tareq died from a rocket exploding on a nearby car as he walks to school. Her monologue begins with Ashraf reflecting: “All the neighborhood kids loved him. He was calmer than a breezeâ€¦My brother and his friends would go out running like butterflies flying off the ground. Like the world was created for themâ€¦” Neeley pauses. Her voice cracks. Her hazel eyes well up. She describes Ashraf’s father telling him his brother died. “I always cry at this part. How do you tell your son something like this?”
Neeley first performed Ashraf’s monologue on Oct. 17 at a joint production of the Gaza-Monologues by the United World College — USA, Highlands University and the Nat Gold Players community theatre group. On the same day, the Gaza-Monologues was performed worldwide by theatre groups in 50 cities and 30 countries, with the Las Vegas, N.M., production one of only three in the U.S.
Tim Crofton of the UWC-USA directed the Oct. 17 Gaza-Monologues production. The ASHTAR Theatre asked him to pick one outstanding actor for its Nov. 29 United Nations production.
“All the actors did well in our local Gaza-Monologues production,” Crofton says. “I selected Tiffany because she is an accomplished young actress and it was her turn to shine. She’s not just a great young performer, but a great ambassador for Highlands, our community, and performing arts in New Mexico.”
Crofton directed several local theatrical productions that included Neeley, and admires her fierce determination to develop as an artist.
Neeley is the type of actress who makes an immediate impact. “When I first saw Tiffany burst onto the stage to audition for Over the Edge, I thought to myself, â€˜this young woman has got it — what it takes to engage in a real actress’ practice,'” says Cynthia Riley, a writer and director for the Nat Gold Players who directed Neeley for Ashraf’s monologue. Riley also teaches a speech class at Highlands, where the Gaza-Monologues got its first local read through. “Tiffany has an intense commitment to each role she plays, that’s the stuff of good acting. Without this commitment, it’s just a weak, transparent performance.”
For Neeley, acting and singing are no less a part of her than her heart and lungs. “I’ve always had the luxury of knowing exactly what I wanted to do. It could be a blessing or a curse but I think it’s a blessing. Every since I could walk and talk I was singing, dancing and creating in my own little world,” she muses. “Acting and singing are different every time you step on the stage because the technique is so complex. As an artist you have to enjoy the process more than the performance, which is just the icing on the cake. I want to keep discovering different aspects of my art.”
Standing six-feet-tall barefoot, Neeley has a commanding stage presence, carrying herself like the athlete she is. “But she could be 5 feet and just as dynamic because she knows how to project to the audience,” says Riley. Offstage, Neeley exudes energy, purpose, passion.
She’s the first in her family to attend college. Her mother, Nancy, is thrilled, proud, and frankly in awe that her middle daughter will be performing in the Big Apple. Neeley says: “When I graduated from high school, I had a gut instinct that I wasn’t done. I said, â€˜Tiff you’re in for something more. Go for it.'” Volleyball was her ticket to an education, starting at Chaffey Community College in Rancho Cucamonga, Calif., and leading to a full-ride athletic scholarship to Highlands in 2007, where she suited up as a Cowgirl front-line spiker for two years.
She’ll walk across another stage in May 2010 when she accepts her diploma with a degree in business management and a minor in music. “I chose a major that can help you no matter what you do. It’s my back up.” And there’s still that inner voice telling her she’s not done. Next year, the mezzo soprano will pursue her BFA at Highlands in vocal performance.
“Tiffany is definitely a Broadway singer, and one of the very best belters I’ve worked with since joining the Highlands’ music faculty in 1990,”said Andre Garcia-Nuthmann, who directs the university’s choral programs and has coached Neeley in private voice lessons for two years. He’s also directed her in numerous musical productions. “Musically, artistically, theatrically, Tiffany has grown in leaps and bounds. She has exceptional talent and is a very dynamic, exciting performer. She’s also incredibly dedicated. If Tiffany continues with her dedication and hard work, she can accomplish anything she wants.”
Neeley says: “At Highlands I’ve been able to be an athlete, musician and performer. I’ve learned so much and grown in confidence. It’s like taking lines from one of my favorite songs, â€˜So Much Better.’ It begins, â€˜Is that my name up on that list?/Does someone know I exist?'”
To be on stage in New York, that’s every performer’s dream. That’s where the best in the business go. It’s an amazing opportunity for me. I’ll shake a few hands and meet a few people. Then who knows? Artists are like gypsies. We go where the wind takes us and can’t be tied down to one place,” Neeley reflects.
The e-mail arrives. The wind changes direction. The tape comes off the breasts and she tosses the cigarette box. She’s been assigned a new female role for the Gaza-Monologues. A scant two weeks to prepare, something that could rattle the most veteran actress. Neeley takes it in stride, putting herself in lockdown mode to prepare what took two months with Ashraf’s monologue.”I have to read a new part about seven times, analyzing it, circling where I can bring more flavor and marking where the action changes. Then you start to get it on its feet, and get the creative juices flowing. No character is a cardboard cutout — they’re multidimensional just like we all are. I’m also delving into what’s culturally acceptable for a young woman in Palestine today. By the time I’m done, Sujoud will be a walking, breathing human being.”
“I have no doubt Tiffany will arrive in New York with a polished, heartbreaking performance,” Riley says.
Neeley bursts into a short song about New York and chuckles. “Too many people today lose their childhood imagination, and sense of creativity and possibilities. I see the world as a place where I can still reach for the stars and everything is possible.”